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‘The Pipeline Project’ Aims to Save Kids Who Don’t Make it to Higher Ed

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Anna Deavere Smith is an actress and playwright whom you may have seen on shows like “Nurse Jackie,” “ Blackish,” “Madame Secretary,” or “West Wing.”

I haven’t. Missed those. Sorry.

Smith is a gifted performer, but I’ve only seen her, and know her from her less commercial, documentary theatre like “Twilight: Los Angeles,” about the Los Angeles race riots of 1992.

That wasn’t escapist fare.

Neither is her latest, “The Pipeline Project,” a project whose stated goal is “the end of the school to prison pipeline and the effects of public school policies that criminalize misbehavior and that subject students of color and low-income backgrounds disproportionately to exclusionary discipline or criminal prosecution.”

A mouthful. But it happens. We know it. These are the young men and women who don’t make it to higher ed.

Smith asks us by presenting the facts as artfully as she can. And she doesn’t let us off the hook.

Indeed it’s Smith’s signature style. She reports, interviews people, then presents the interviews as a string of characters in a performance that is as stirring as any theatrical production because it’s a “real fiction.”

Real because the characters aren’t made up, but are talking verbatim directly to audience members. Fiction, because the characters are still Smith’s imagination interpreting them.

Would that be better than the straight video-taped interview of the person themselves, the talking head versus the artful Smith?

I wondered that as I was watched for the first time a Yurok Indian student in trouble with the law since he was a young boy. And then there’s all the other young men and women telling their stories of what went wrong in life and how they found themselves thrown into the “pipeline.”

These are the ones who miss that other pipe ― the school-to-college one.

Still, would I have rather heard from them directly as a talking head in a documentary and not Smith?

What made me think of it was Smith’s performance comes with a few pictures of the actual people interviewed. For example, there’s Smith as Allen Bullock, the 18-year-old arrested for smashing a police car window in the Baltimore riots over the death of Freddie Gray.

Now this is recent news. But do you remember Allen Bullock?  We hear from Smith/Gray and it’s art. When she finishes, the projector flashes the headline about the real 18-year-old. He’s been arrested and held on bail of $500,000.

One of the real gut-punches of the night.

Would it be more powerful to hear from Bullock directly?

Or would we even stop to listen?

The biggest gulp for me came when Smith as a judge trying to work within the system holds up a file of a kid in the pipeline. From a blurry picture of a cute, fresh-faced, young pre-adolescent, the screen shows him today. In prison, a face full of tattoos like acne.

Then you realize why we need Smith.

Somehow the artistic rendering given by Smith, her theatrical reporting, objectifies the information enough so we can forgive our oversight, excuse our distance, and then take in their stories so we can finally process them and understand them for the first time.

(Of course, as an audience member, we have also paid for the ticket, too. In the evening’s entertainment, at the least, not to mention as members of society, we have a stake).

Maybe we’ve been seeing and hearing the talking heads all our lives and done nothing about them way too long. We’ve seen too many of these kids; too many administrators who deal with them tread water, and sink. Maybe we’ve heard the problems, heard the solutions, and just had it with real life to the point we tune it all out. And do nothing.

Perhaps seeing the artist’s portrayal allows us to take it in and actually see the people talking, the problems presented, and then like all great art, maybe we are aroused. As the Bard would say, “perchance to dream?”

Art is supposed to be a cleansing experience. After seeing Smith’s performance, there is no choice but to act. Because statements linger, and don’t let us forget.

Along with the program, Smith includes resources to help audience members, including information on HR3401, the Restorative Justice in Schools Act, which would offer options to teachers other than suspension.

In California, there’s State Senate Bill 504 that would seal juvenile records to help young people “Starting Over Strong” at age 18 to apply for jobs, school and housing.

She also includes names of supporting groups like the president’s My Brother’s Keeper, and websites like

I saw Smith as part of her residency at Stanford, and am not sure of future performances. But how can she be done with the project if the problem doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon?

If it’s playing near you, it’s worth the experience. You might even see yourself, or other higher ed archetypes. Smith interviewed Pedro Noguera, the distinguished professor of Education from UCLA, who also talked about mental health and homelessness, situations that many in the pipeline experience.

Smith as Noguera questions whether when we see a homeless person on the street we say, “That’s where he sleeps.”  We don’t ask what is he doing in the streets, let alone why. “Maybe we’re the ones mentally ill?” Smith/Noguera asks

Insights like that don’t come from escapist fare. Smith as an artist gives us no escape from the truth.

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