This Is America: Part One
Zach's Notes From the Field cast on living black
By Robert Faires,
11:20AM, Thu. Feb. 28, 2019
In producing the play Notes From the Field – an investigation into the school-to-prison pipeline by Anna Deavere Smith – Zach Theatre was able to have four local actors play the interview subjects that Smith usually plays herself. Those four sat down for a long conversation about the play and their experiences on and offstage.
The first part of the discussion with Zell Miller III, Carla Nickerson, Michelle Alexander, and Kriston Woodreaux covers many of the challenges involved in playing living individuals the way Smith does, with their interview remarks transcribed verbatim, complete with every grammatical slip, pause, "um," and "ah." It can be found here. The third part, which focuses on what it feels like for four African-Americans to perform this play in front of white audiences and and also how they deal with racist behavior can be found here.
This section concerns what discoveries the actors made while working on the play and the bonds that developed among them – and also racism. For part of Notes From the Field, Smith went to Northern California and interviewed members of the Yurok tribe, including Abby Abinanti, chief judge of the Yurok Tribal Court. That figures heavily into the first part of this section.
Note: This interview has not been transcribed as scrupulously as one of Ms. Smith's. What appears here is edited and condensed.
Austin Chronicle: What discoveries did you make about the subject matter that you didn’t know?
Zell Miller III: For me, man, it was the Native American pieces. Cause I was familiar with a little bit of it, but I didn’t know that Native Americans had their own court. The way that their judicial system works, I wish that was the way the American court system works. That was a discovery for me. Being black in America, [I had] blinders on with how it affects, like, Native American culture. My wife is half Puerto Rican and Mexican, and [with] the populations of the schools I’m at, I’m always thinking about the black and brown side, but until I hear a story or something … [I’m not] thinking about how all of this oppression is affecting Native American culture still. So that was a huge discovery for me.
AC: Who plays the Native American judge? Was that something new for you also?
Carla Nickerson: It was somewhat. I had learned a lot about Native American culture and some of the realities when I was in Montana a couple of times. My sister was living there and she was like, the only black in Billings. She was a local celebrity while she was there. “Carla,” she said, “this just blows my mind. Natives are the blacks of Texas here.” I said, “You’re kidding.” She goes, “[Whites,] they’re just overtly racist. They’ll just say ugly things about Natives just like they do us at home.” So I did know that they were going through a lot of that, but one thing there is no parallel [to] that is saddening is the court system with the Natives. [That] is something we will never have. Because we don’t have the judges, we don’t have the attorneys, we don’t have a system set up. And because we don’t have a nation – not that I would want to be forced to live on a reservation – that will never happen. It would be wonderful to, say, have a jury of your peers or a judge who is part of your community, [but] that’s something that will never be a reality in this country for us.
Michelle Alexander: One of the characters I play that I’m still trying to figure out is Denise Dodson. She was in prison for about 23 years, and she didn’t commit the crime, her boyfriend at the time did, but some people feel she was supposed to be there, even though she didn’t do anything. And she blames it so much on her education; if she had gotten more attention from her teachers, she would have been better. And I don’t know how much of that is true or not, but [it] had me thinking a lot about my schooling, and would I have been different if I went to a school with more brown kids? Because I grew up in Round Rock, so I was the only brown kid until probably high school. And even then, in certain classes, it was just me. So I do wonder. This play has really opened my mind. Being black in America, a lot of this was no surprise, a lot of the journeys these characters took, [but] I didn’t have the same journey. Some of it was like, “Man, do I suffer from black privilege or not?” It opened my mind so much, and I’m really grateful for this experience because I will always look at things differently now. There’s no way I can’t, especially about the indigenous characters. It’s just amazing to see how you can connect on an oppression level with other races who are not white. It makes me sad, but it’s real.
Miller: That’s the American experience, though. You know what I’m sayin’? That’s sad to say, but that’s what it is. I play Councilman Tubbs, who is this super-young, brilliant, amazing black kid. He’s now the youngest mayor in America, and at the time, he was running for city council or had been [elected to] city council. He’s like 22 years old. And he’s talking about this experience of these kids in Stockton, California – which I didn’t know anything about. So the idea of how he’s talking about what they’re going through, and the things they’re going through. it mirrors things I see every day in my job. So it just breaks your heart, man. And the fact that Anna can just take these specific moments – and I think that’s where a lot of her brilliance is for me – take these moments and, you know, it’s almost like a chapter. It’s like a book. It’s so full, in nine paragraphs. So as an actor, I’ve learned that I can continue to push my craft even more.
AC: I know the portraits are separate, but is there an invisible bond that you can draw on each other for strength to get through the harder moments?
Miller: Absolutely. Yeah, yeah.
Nickerson: We’ve made a lot of discoveries together that would not have happened without …
Alexander: Like the table talk. That definitely helped me as a person and to understand my characters.
Woodreaux: And we get to share all this stuff. Very quickly, I’m the new guy, and this is my first show here, and coming into the room, I was like, “Whoa, I don’t know what to expect.” And we didn’t even start with table work. [Director] Dave [Steakley] was like, “Up on your feet,” and we just ran it. And then, a couple days into it, we sat down and we started talking about all of it, and then everything started to click. And I feel like that’s where that invisible bond that you were talking about came from: us getting to see each other make choices and when we felt it in our guts, and then to be able to contextualize it later and justify it, and then go back in with specific choices. The process has just been very free and very trusting. [Dave] lets us do our thing, and he makes the suggestions, and we’ll tweak it this way and that, but it’s us up there and he’s allowing us to live our experience.
Miller: And I don’t know about y’all, but I feel like when I’m out there, I feel the support, you know what I mean? Especially when I’m backstage and we’re trying to get that “um,” that “I,” that – you know what I mean? I’m like, “Do you think you can do it?” and I think it is an invisible bond that’s built, and I think it’s through the African tradition of storytelling, which is what we’re doing, you know what I mean? We’re griots, sitting down to deliver these stories that have been masterfully crafted.
Nickerson: I think one thing also – and I probably shouldn’t even talk about this – I’ll just say we had some people see this, and I remember thinking I was getting nervous for other people [to see it]. As a black person in America, you almost get to be an empath because you see how people react to you, and I didn’t want people to react [to the play] with fear or for the wall to go up, and we all know what I mean.
Nickerson: There are some things that, as soon as you say it, as soon as you say it, the wall goes up, the light in the eyes goes out, and it’s over. It’s so important for this work to get through to people without the wall going up in defensiveness, like I’m accusing you of something, like “You did this.” People take things very personally. I heard a comedian once say – I guess it was about Black Lives Matter or something, a white comedian, he goes, “Why are y’all so upset about that? It’s like you go up to a community bulletin board, and it says “Piano Lessons,” and there’s a phone number, and you tear one off and you call the phone number and say, “Are you teaching piano lessons?” “Yes, I am.” “I don’t want to learn piano! Why don’t you teach cello?!” And that’s exactly what it is. If black lives don’t matter to you, and you don’t like it, just shut up and go away. Why would you call the piano [teacher]? It sounds idiotic to do that.
Alexander: Speaking of that, I saw a comedian, and he talked about Black Lives Matter, too. “We’re saying that we just want to matter. Just matter. Nothing else, just matter.” [Laughter]
Nickerson: Maybe we should put “too” in parentheses, you know. Black Lives Matter (Too).
Alexander: We matter. That’s it. And civil rights. Just civil, not equal. Civil. We’re not even trying to ask for a lot, and people are in an uproar. You can feel the uncomfortability, and –
Nickerson: Yeah, that’s what it is. That’s the thing. That’s my big fear, because I’ve experienced this so much in my life, in just moving through this life, that immediately walls go up. Immediately. And immediately people will call the cops, even if they did something wrong. A woman cut line one time – there were about 12 of us waiting, and she pushed aside and got in front of the next guy. And I said, “I don’t think you saw, there’s about 12 of us in line.” And she said “Y’all” – Obama was president, so I knew exactly what [that meant] … “Y’all can’t tell us what to do. If you’re in the wrong line, you’re just in the wrong line.” I said, “Okay, I just thought that maybe you didn’t see that and maybe you’d want to know that you’re cutting line.” “I’m calling the cops!” And she called the cops on me.
Alexander: You’re lying.
Nickerson: I kid you not.
Woodreaux: And then you threw your badge at her feet.
Nickerson: I wasn’t a cop [then], and I don’t even tell people I was. It’s like being in The Twilight Zone sometimes. And I think that there’s a common belief that, you know, just like “nigger” is one of the buttons you can press with one of us, say you’re calling the cops and we’ll go, “Aaaahhh!” [That] I’ll run away because I’m scared and I’ve got warrants.
Alexander: Now it’s “Trump.” People will say “Trump” now like it’s the N-word. People go like, “Be afraid of me because I believe in this person.”
Nickerson: No, “MAGA” is the new N-word.
Alexander: Oh man, all of that. All of that.
Woodreaux: Soft “g,” soft “g.”
Alexander: “MAJA.” [Laughter] Man, that’s real, though.
Miller: To Carla’s point, the way that I’ve been trained and the way that I go about it, I’m not worried about [how whites will react] … I’m gonna give you this truth, so you’re gonna have to [take it] – It’s medicine. When I used to take that Robitussin from my mama, it wasn’t sweet-flavored. It’s like, “You gettin’ this Robitussin …” [Laughs] So hats off to Dave for attempting this piece and assembling this cast and wanting to bring this to Austin. And I think he said something the other night, he was like, “I know there’s a lot of stuff going on in the world, but I want to be focused on Central Austin, and I want these conversations.” And not just these conversations, cause you know, people see things and they’re like, “I wish I could do something about it.” There’s gonna be information from nonprofits, so you can donate, you can volunteer, you know, it’s up to you if you really are moved, and you want to do something about it. Cause the issues are here, man, and it’s white people having conversations with white people. It’s not white people coming into the room with black and brown people. It’s white people having conversations with white people is when we’re gonna see a change. So I think it’s important.
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.