The Challenge of Playing Living People in Zach Theatre's Notes From the Field
The cast discusses how hard it can be getting into the skin of living people in Anna Deavere Smith's play
"It's impossible to talk about the criminal justice system, mass incarceration, without talking about education."
The statement comes from Sherrilyn Ifill, head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and one of 16 individuals who appear in Anna Deavere Smith's Notes From the Field, a play that investigates the link between schools and prisons – specifically, how students who don't succeed in school (largely over disciplinary issues) are most likely to wind up behind bars.
This so-called "school-to-prison pipeline" hit close to home for Smith, whose mother and aunts were teachers in Baltimore. That it disproportionately affects children of color and people in poverty drove her to learn more. Three years and 250 interviews later, Smith channeled what she'd learned into another of her signature documentary theatre works (see also Fires in the Mirror; Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992; House Arrest, which Zach Theatre produced in 2004; and Let Me Down Easy, which Smith workshopped at Zach). Notes addresses not only education and incarceration but also the treatment of minorities in the U.S., Native American courts, police brutality, and more, through figures such as Ifill; Kevin Moore, who filmed the police beating of Freddie Gray on his phone; and Denise Dodson, who was convicted of first-degree murder after her boyfriend killed a man who tried to rape her. In all prior performances of Notes, as well as the film of the play that HBO premiered in February, Smith has played every role herself. For Zach's production, though, she's allowed a group of actors to play the parts. That foursome – Zell Miller III, Carla Nickerson, Michelle Alexander, and Kriston Woodreaux – sat down to discuss their experiences both portraying these people and being black in America.
This is a fraction of the conversation. To read more, visit austinchronicle.com/arts.
Austin Chronicle: Are there people you are drawn to or ones that have you thinking, "I don't know how I'm going to climb into this skin every night"?
Michelle Alexander: I think of Kriston when he has to be the preacher at Freddie Gray's funeral. We had to do it for the donors, and [director] Dave [Steakley] asked us to quiet our ad-libs so we could hear his words, and it was hard. It's hard to sit there and not be like, mmm-hmm. He says some powerful things. And it comes right after I play Allen, who was part of the Freddie Gray riots – he's this street kid, and I definitely feel drawn to him. I feel like all these characters are challenging. I get the opportunity and the honor to play Bree Newsome, who was the black woman who took the Confederate flag down, and it's like, wow, she's still alive. I follow her on Instagram. It's amazing what these people have gone through, and they're still living to tell these stories. It's epic. And I think about Anna. She played all these people. I'm emotionally drained after doing one. Like, "How did she do this?" I don't know how her mindset was, because some nights I'll just cry. And not like, "Oh, I can't get my lines." ... Sometimes it's that. [Laughter]
Kriston Woodreaux: I was gonna say ...
Carla Nickerson: I'm with you on that one.
Zell Miller III: We cry.
Alexander: Definitely it's that. Sometimes you have to detach your feelings from what they're saying, and it's hard. When he's preaching, it's hard for me to not feel the Holy Ghost, you know? You get invested, and as an actor, it's so challenging.
Woodreaux: When we first were assigned each portrait, my gut feeling was to say, "Okay, Anna did all of these, so I gotta make mine different," right? And that doesn't serve the story of these real people. It serves me as an actor. I want to tell their stories, not for them but alongside them. Michelle talked about the preacher that I play, Jamal-Harrison Bryant. There's a video of his sermon online, and I hate watching stuff like that cause I just want to do it on my own. I listened enough to pick up his speech patterns and what operative words he uses and am trying to apply it to his speech here. But some characters don't have that, and there are times when we have to draw upon ourselves and the script and really investigate, like, "Why did you stop right there, repeat that word, repeat that sentence, and then change points?" And I feel like every time I made a discovery – "That's what that means! I had a completely different meaning for that sentence!" – [it's] because I got out of my own way of trying to perform it and I just listened to what this real person was saying.
Alexander: Note to self! [Laughter] I like hearing that. Because a lot of the time, I don't think about the character in that moment. I'm like, "Were they saying this because Anna was there, or were they saying this because this was how they feel for real?"
Woodreaux: Yeah, what part is a performance? What version of these people are we getting to show the world? I always think, "What if one of them shows up tonight and I don't know?" And they come up after and go, "What are you doing?" So, bottom line: honesty. If I connect or don't connect, honesty.
Miller: I have to do Kevin [Moore], who [shot the] footage of the Freddie Gray murder. It's ... aw man, I'm getting emotional now. The way he describes it and looking at the footage and having to climb into that, it was so difficult to learn. I was talking to a friend of mine, and she was like, "You're experiencing secondary trauma." I have a very cinematic mind, so when I'm learning [the lines], you can't unsee it. So to do that hour after hour, trying to learn the lines and perform it and be honest about it and the fact that you literally are looking at somebody's murder on film – and then nobody pays for it. Nobody pays for it but the community and the family. So having to try to not get so emotional that I can't tell the story and also not be selfish about trying to tell the story, to where the audience can't hear the story, it's definitely been a challenge. Dave's been awesome working with me to manage that. But it's tough, man, it's really hard to do that. I mean, all the pieces are hard in their own right, but that particular piece, for me, that's been hard.
Nickerson: Kevin Moore's affected me especially, too, being a police officer. I had other black officers warn me several times, "Girl, you're gonna find a cross burning in your yard." I didn't come from that whole military background and criminal justice. I just came from being me, and I wanted to be a cop, so I had a different take on it. But I saw so many times, just on a whim, a cop send somebody's life down the rabbit hole. They'd say something like, "Well, tell it to the judge." When you say, "Tell it to the judge," you're taking them to jail, they don't have bail, they're gonna miss work, they're gonna be fired, they're gonna have a record, they're gonna get a public defender or nobody. And you just destroyed a life, potentially. I saw a lot of that. And it was hard. It was hard being a black police officer who was really about my people and being proud of who I am and being honest and saying, "Hey, this is fucked up." But it is. We need police officers who [do] not, you know, have that tunnel vision – "Oh, we're brothers in blue. We don't see black or white or brown." Because 80 percent of all colors are that way. Communities need police officers who relate to them, who talk to them like a real person, who see them as human, because that's the key issue when you talk about enforcement on the street. You have cops who don't see certain people as human beings. Literally. I didn't believe that until I was a cop and saw it up close. They really can and do treat people different ways because in their eyes, it's like a cockroach or a rabid dog. And that's real. I guess I wasn't ready to believe that there are people walking around who don't see me as human, or who don't see me at all.
Notes From the Field runs through March 31, Wed.-Fri., 7:30pm; Sat., 2:30 & 7:30pm; Sun., 2:30pm, at the Zach Kleberg Theatre, 202 S. Lamar. For more information, visit www.zachtheatre.org.