I recently had the great privilege of seeing Anna Deavere Smith and Sherilynn Ifill in conversation. Ms. Ifill lives here in Baltimore, though she works nationally as head of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund. Ms. Smith grew up here, and played one of my very favorite characters on “The West Wing”—the no-nonsense National Security Advisor who had no trouble standing up to the generals of the Joint Chiefs’ office. She’s a talented actor, and she’s also a playwright and teacher.
Ms. Smith is working on the “Pipeline Project,” which investigates “the school-to-prison pipeline—the cycle of suspension from school to incarceration that is prevalent among low-income Black, Brown, Latino, and Native-American youth.” She’s interviewing hundreds of people involved in the pipeline at all levels: students, teachers, parents, police, thought and policy leaders, psychologists, community activists, and others. Using the alchemy of theater, she’s going to perform the stories in several cities, as fodder for town hall meetings and further advocacy. The tie-in to Baltimore’s recent civil unrest (also known as an “uprising”) is clear, although she began this project long before then.
Seeing the two of them together—a lawyer and an artist—was a powerful experience. Ms. Ifill spoke eloquently about her defense of the right of black children to have a childhood, one that includes imagination, protection, learning, and, yes, mischief. She cited a case in Texas, where a high school student was arrested for swearing, which in that state is apparently a class C misdemeanor (I think I got that right). Swearing. Or more accurately, swearing while black. She works in the areas of litigation and policy, which is natural since she’s a lawyer. She defends the dignity of citizens in a democratic society, and that dignity extends, especially for children, to the right to make mistakes.
Ms. Smith countered in a friendly way that the law has limitations, that it can be used to justify misdeeds. She went further to say, “I like to be honest about what art can do. It can’t save lives.” Then she quoted Johnny Cochran:
“There are three sides to every story. Yours, mine, and the truth.”
Her training in classical theater means that she knows how to listen for the truth. She calls it “beautiful singing,” and said you know when you hear it that people are speaking the truth.
This exchange got me thinking about art’s brilliant ability to engage and illuminate paradoxical truths. It creates spaces big enough to contain opposing views of the truth. While great drama includes good guys and villains, often the line between them is not crystal clear. And they both exist in the world of the play, which is a container for opposites. The law, on the other hand, has right and wrong, winners and losers. In reality, truth can be quite slippery. I don’t mean this in a relativistic sense, but as a nod to the complexities of paradox.
The law is a construct, an abstraction that flows from a moral sense of right and wrong. It is about passing judgment, of righting wrongs, of maintaining order in a diverse society. Of course, that’s good and necessary, as long as we admit that the law itself is not above the law. There are human beings behind all this, and we are fallible. No matter how moral we are, none of us has a lock on the capital “T” Truth; only on small “t” truths.
It’s probably no surprise that I am more at home in the sphere of art, for its ability to make room for multiple stories and versions of truth for different people. Out of that multivalent truth flows new insight, new possibility. The black and white thinking of many aspects of the legal approach can feel very satisfying and righteous. And yet it usually leaves the “losers” out of the conversation, rarely changing their minds or moving their hearts.
Art opens doors. It offers a way to gather people, hold conversations and listen. Ms. Ifill herself does a fair amount of this. When interviewed on talk shows and by magazines, particularly in the wake of police shootings, the Black Lives Matter movement and the civil unrest in Ferguson, Baltimore and elsewhere, she’s a storyteller. She focuses on getting people to see what they’re not seeing. So, when someone is decrying the looting and burning of a corner CVS, she asks them to look at the rest of the block. What other stores are there? Any banks? Starbucks? Grocers? She directs their attention to what’s not there: opportunity, resources, local businesses, a robust, healthy community.
Anna Deavere Smith’s Pipeline Project is an excellent opportunity to invite young people’s voices to broaden the narrative. That night, when audience members were invited to share their thoughts and questions, several black youths came to the microphones. One spoke of investing in vacant houses, of flipping them not to make money but to house people who need it. To open markets for fresh produce. Another said we know what it’s like to struggle and make it with nothing. He saw that as an advantage over people who grew up privileged and who had it easy from birth. And he’s right.
This is their time. These young people are leaders, and they are—having seen far more of the darker side of life than many of us—wise beyond their years. It lifts my spirit to know there are powerful women like Ms. Ifill and Ms. Smith out there, working from both directions to keep shining a light on truth. It’s no coincidence that both the law and theater have storytelling in common. In this increasingly polarized world, we have a great need for truthful storytelling, that ancient practice of making space for paradox.