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By Robert P. Smith, Philadelphia Theatre Company

Anna Deavere Smith is an internationally recognized artist, who is known for creating a groundbreaking new form a theatre employing both performance and journalism. The Pipeline Project, devised and implemented by Anna Deavere Smith, will explore the “school to prison pipeline,” a disturbing national trend wherein children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. This project will address the urgent issue of American youths whose educations are being arrested by the ramifications of poverty.

Philadelphia thought leaders meet with Anna Deavere Smith. Photo credit: Robert Phillip Smith.

Philadelphia thought leaders meet with Anna Deavere Smith. Photo credit: Robert Phillip Smith.

Pipeline seeks to increase the attention society pays to this problem beyond the realms of the academy, philanthropy, and activism. This project would inform the broader American public of what is at stake. Philadelphia is one of the select cities participating in the project over the coming year. Philadelphia Theatre Company, in partnership with Ms. Smith, plans to use the creation of a new play in conjunction with a series of public engagement events to raise awareness in the Philadelphia community and to help further galvanize those who are already hard at work to save lives and neighborhoods.

On Saturday, November 16th, at the Cira Center in Philadelphia, the city’s thought leaders involved in public education and the prison system met with Mayor Michael Nutter, staff members of Philadelphia Theatre Company, and Anna Deavere Smith to begin a discussion that will shape The Pipeline Project. Everyone around the table shared who they are, the work that they do, and how it relates to the school-to-prison pipeline trend.

A two and a half hour discussion ensued about this national problem. Several of these leaders were brought to tears over their shared passion for improving the lives of at-risk youth. Bringing this group of leaders together only proved that this dire issue must be brought to wider, public attention and action.

Ms. Smith ended the conversation by quoting her friend, Mr. Cornell West: “Hope and optimism are different. Optimism tends to be based on the notion that there’s enough evidence out there to believe things are gonna be better, much more rational, deeply secular, whereas hope looks at the evidence and says, ‘It doesn’t look good at all. Doesn’t look good at all. Gonna go beyond the evidence to create new possibilities based on visions that become contagious to allow people to engage in heroic actions always against the odds, no guarantee whatsoever.’ That’s hope.”

Everyone at the event that morning was left with a sense of hope and an eagerness to connect Ms. Smith with other people directly affected by the pipeline so she may conduct interviews to further her research, which will take place during her residency set to begin in February 2014. The findings will later develop into an early draft of a play, which will be given a staged reading in late spring 2014. Philadelphia Theatre Company could not be more proud to be the host Anna Deavere Smith and aid her in facilitating The Pipeline Project.

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