This Is America: Part Two

More from the Notes From the Field cast on living black

In producing the play Notes From the Field – an investigation into the school-to-prison pipeline by Anna Deavere SmithZach 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 cast of Notes From the Field at Zach Theatre: (l-r) Michelle Alexander, Kriston Woodreaux, Carla Nickerson, and Zell Miller III (Photo by AxelB Photography)

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 second part, which focuses on what discoveries the actors made while working on the play and the bonds that developed among them – and also racism, can be found here.

This section concerns 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.

Note: This interview has not been transcribed as scrupulously as one of Ms. Smith's. What appears here is edited and condensed.

Austin Chronicle: In one interview I read, Anna was very up-front about saying that she was going to be presenting this show to a very privileged audience. It’s people who go to theatre, and it’s people who can afford to go to theatre, and it’s gonna be mostly white audiences. So you’ve touched on this already, but what do y’all feel about doing this in front of a largely white audience?

Carla Nickerson: Besides the obvious challenges that we’ve already talked about and our commitment and responsibility to put truth out there, I think the difference between doing this for a black audience or a brown audience and a white audience is for black and brown people, there are no major discoveries in this. [Murmur of agreement from all] We live this. And we know more stories. And we have personally seen and experienced them first-hand. So there are no major discoveries for us. The first few times we had a sample audience, it was like, “Oh, I didn’t know that. Oh, did you know that?” It’s like, why did you not know that I did? I don’t know how you could think I don't know that or have experienced these things. And me not as much as some other people who don’t have the same resources that I came from, just being black and moving through life in America. It blows my mind that people really … Or do they? Do they really not know?

Kriston Woodreaux: To that point, I saw this play in 2015. It’s my dirty little secret. I saw this play in 2015 at Berkeley. I was coaching a speech camp in Northern California, and the camp leader gave us tickets to see this show. All-black staff. We go see it and sat somewhere near the back, and we were just so angry hearing the “Oh my God”s and “I didn’t know”s in the audience. And we realized, “Oh, this isn’t for us.” To Carla’s point, it’s for you. And we have these breakout sessions in the show where we discuss everything that we saw in the first act, and a lot of people spoke to that point, to say, “I had no idea that this was happening or that this was happening.” And when I spoke to my crew after, it was the same line of questioning. “These are staples that our communities have communicated over decades, and it sounds like it took this play for you to believe us. And that’s troublesome. It took entertainment. It took you sitting down and sharing in this room to get that. You won’t believe it on a one-on-one basis.”

Nickerson: And what’s to say that’s not the response every time you’ve heard it? Through the decades of your life? I guess you just have to put blinders on and say, “It doesn’t bother me, and I can just move through without thinking about it, and I’m just gonna move on cause it’s not affecting me.”

Zell Miller III: It’s the programming, too, the programming that when you hear something, like with Freddie Gray, and you could tell a lot because it’s, “Well, what did he do?” Not what they did to him, “What did he do?” Cause he had to do something. He had to do something for them to do that.

Nickerson: Somebody said, "Everybody wants to know the what when they should be asking the why."

Miller: Why. Absolutely.

Michelle Alexander: And that reminds me, we actually show one of the videos of the McKinney pool party situation …

Miller: I can’t watch it.

Alexander: And I’ll never forget what happened, cause I’m from Texas and a lot of my friends, who, obviously, we’re no longer Facebook friends cause I was like, “Thank you for telling on yourself,” – Delete! … [Laughter]

Nickerson: I’m the same way! I’m the same: delete, delete, delete!

Alexander: So many people were like, “If they weren’t running, they wouldn’t have gotten in trouble.” Oh, but I’m like, I was like, “But I grew up in Round Rock, man, and I partied with a lot of these white kids, and when the cops showed up, they were the ones running. So y’all taught me how to run from the police.” And I literally said that, cause it’s true. I would never – my dad’s a police officer. I would never be like, “Oh, my first thing to do is run.” But I’m like, all my friends are running. They’re like my ride home. I’m running with y’all. [Laughter]

Nickerson: And! And you the brown one or the black one, you better not be the one standing around!

Alexander: Hell no! I was the main one going with my friends, because I was like, you all taught us …

Nickerson: That’s where the safety is.

Alexander: And a lot of the kids at that party were not all black in that video. I mean, a lot of them were brown kids, but I mean, Backyard Becky was the one who called the police, because there were too many brown kids having fun. They are not allowed to have fun at a pool party. That’s a whole ’nother story, like white people and pools, like the reason why we don’t hang out at pools. I mean, it goes way back. But we weren’t allowed to be at the pool. So seeing that stuff, as you can see it works me up. because it’s just crazy, like the way that they don’t believe. And my biggest fear is that all these privileged people will see this play and be like, “Well that was uncomfortable. What’s for dinner?” [Laughter] You know what I mean? And they ask you, “What can we do?” But are you gonna do anything? I don’t know. I want to make a change, but I’m like, are we? I don’t know. It feels like maybe we’re putting too much pressure on ourselves. Or I’m doing that to myself. But I want change, and I don’t want to be the only one doing something about it. I think it does take these conversations, white-on-white conversations.

Miller: But it’s like Kevin says, “We can’t wait around for them to make it better.” You know what I mean? Like I can’t worry about what the white community’s doing. I have a 19-year-old son and an 11-year-old daughter. I can’t. I can’t wait for you.

Alexander: That’s real.

Miller: I’ve got to educate my children. I’ve got to put them in positions to be successful. I’ve got to also, the sad thing is, I’ve got to put them in the positions of, “If you get pulled over by a cop, Zell, put your hands in the air and say, “I don’t have anything on me to hurt you. And I don’t have anything in my backpack. My ID is in my backpack. I’m keeping my hands up until you allow me to – “ And I’ve gotta rehearse this with my son …

Alexander: And we joke about it now, but as a kid, before we pulled up to any store, it was that talk, and I’m sure you all know the talk …

Miller: Yeah, yeah, “Don’t ask for nothin’ …” [Laughs]

Alexander: “Don’t touch nothing. Keep your hands out of your pockets.” Every time, we’d be so annoyed, like “Mom!” But she would always tell us what we can and can’t do before you go into a store.

Nickerson: Oh, I remember my mom used to fuss at me even after I finished college. It wasn’t terribly long ago. I’m in this store, I think I was trying to find my cell phone. “Oh, no, no, don’t do that in the store, somebody’s gonna … Wait till we go out here before you call somebody.” And that’s very real.

Alexander: Yep. Yep.

Miller: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Nickerson: And that’s not unusual at all. That’s very common.

Alexander: We all know that story.

Miller: No doubt.

Alexander: We see memes about it all the time. “Don’t touch nothin’. Don’t ask for nothin’.”

Nickerson: Does anybody else here find yourself almost apologizing …? Here’s a perfect example: I’m in H-E-B and I want artichokes or something. I’m looking for the canned artichokes, and here’s some woman with her basket parked here, her purse sitting wide open, she’s down there, artichokes are right here over her purse. I literally say, “Excuse me. Is this yours?” “Yes.” And she’ll come over, and I’ll say, “I just didn’t want you to freak out when you see me standing over your purse.” I have to do that because I know. I know. I’ve been accused of just stupid, idiotic … like, what do you have that I want? Are you kidding? You just saw me around, so I did it?

Alexander: Or like that “be-boop.” “Let me lock my car 15 times, so –“

Nickerson: I literally try to prevent that by “Excuse me, I’m reaching right here where your bag is. Will you come get your …?” “Oh, sure. I’m sorry –” “Oh no, I just didn’t want you to get the wrong idea.” “I’d never do that.” I get that all the time. “I wouldn’t think that.”

Alexander: [Laughs] Yes, you would.

Nickerson: Or I have waited for an elevator, or I’m walking up to one, especially somebody who’s elderly or who kind of freaks out a little bit just that I walked up, I’ll kind of stand around and wait for the next elevator cause I just can’t …

Miller: I don’t!

Nickerson: I have to! I have to!

Miller: [Loudly] I don’t. I don’t care.

Alexander: Zell does not care. I love that.

Miller: I get on. "What floor do you want?" Boom! And I’m not trying to engage you, but I’m tired. I’m done. I’m done.

Nickerson: I just … That is just toxic to me … No, I don’t like the toxicity.

Miller: And it’s not a, it’s not a, you know, a revolutionary thing, but I’m done making excuses. I’m done. I can’t, man. I’m gonna be me. I’m just gonna do it.

Alexander: [Teasing] I’m gonna be me.

Miller: That’s what it is, man.

Nickerson: I applaud you for that. And it’s not all the time.

Miller: I can’t. I can’t. And I have in the past. I have.

Nickerson: There have been times when I have seen people get so freaked out when I’ve walked up. She’s going up, too. There’s no way in hell I’m gonna have this lady have a heart attack cause I’m getting on the elevator with her.

Miller: Yeah. And I’m a little more evil. Go ahead.

Nickerson: [Chuckles] You’re a little more evil.

Alexander: Just being a black person trying to find somebody’s house, that enough makes people nervous. Or being in the grocery store looking for something. “I work for Favor, just know that, I’m on a mission here.” Because people project their fear onto you, and it’s just like, I don’t know. Being younger, I remember trying to tell my friends, “Oh, he was so racist to me the other day.” “Oh, you’re overreacting.” I don’t know how many times I got that. And I’m like, “Maybe I am overreacting.” But now that I’m older, I’m like, “No!” And so many things come back, “Damn, that was racist. That was racist. That was racist.” So many things that you just don’t, I mean, I don’t want to blame it all on growing up in Round Rock, but a lot of it was you didn’t see a lot of people like you going through the same experiences as you did. So now I’m older, I’m grateful for the art and the fact that we get to do this. It’s teaching me so much about me. I love that.

Miller: And the fact that people can come in a safe environment, experience these stories, deal with whatever you got that you’re carrying in, and then you’ve gotta make a choice. That’s it: You’ve gotta make a choice.

Alexander: Decisions, yeah.

Miller: Especially after these videos. Like, the words are powerful enough, but after these – these are actual videos shot on cell phones, so now, it’s on you. What do you want to do? I don’t know what else I can get for you. And that’s another thing: I’m tired of teaching. I’m tired of teaching.

Nickerson: Me, too. I unfriended a good friend that I had since junior high school. I said something about Baltimore and what was going on there, about the riots and stuff, and he goes, “You know, it’s really sad, the black people destroying their own lives.” And I said, “What do you mean?” And he goes, “Well, you know, they’re burning everything up, and costing millions of dollars.” “So you’re saying that the property is more valuable than these people’s lives.” “No, I’m just saying, 'Be normal and you don’t get in trouble.'” I said, “What is normal?” And he said, “Don’t go protesting and getting mad and rioting and all that.” I said, “You know that’s how this country was founded. This country was founded on people rebelling against oppression. And when people of the wrong color do the same thing and say, ‘This is oppression and I’m not gonna take it,’ then you’re some kind of terrorist.”

Alexander: How dare you have a voice! And feelings.

Nickerson: Freedom of speech if you’re the right color. Otherwise, shut up!

Woodreaux: This happens every rehearsal. [Laughter]

Nickerson: So true.

Woodreaux: These stories just naturally come out of us, and it’s all from the text. And it’s how we know we’re connected, because it inspires and brings forth things that we forgot about and experiences that we’ve shared.

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

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Zach Theatre
This Is Who We Are #4: Zach Theatre's <i>The Gospel at Colonus</i>
This Is Who We Are #4: Zach Theatre's The Gospel at Colonus
A daily affirmation of Austin's creativity from the Chronicle archive

Robert Faires, May 7, 2020

In Memoriam: Terrence McNally
In Memoriam: Terrence McNally
Covid-19 complications claim the distinguished playwright

Robert Faires, March 25, 2020

More by Robert Faires
Last Bow of an Accidental Critic
Last Bow of an Accidental Critic
Lessons and surprises from a career that shouldn’t have been

Sept. 24, 2021

"Daniel Johnston: I Live My Broken Dreams" Tells the Story of an Artist
The first-ever museum exhibition of Daniel Johnston's work digs deep into the man, the myths

Sept. 17, 2021


Zach Theatre, Zell Miller III, Carla Nickerson, Michelle Alexander, Kriston Woodreaux, Dave Steakley

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle