BERKELEY -- Poverty and problems in the juvenile justice system: Could the solution be as simple as a handshake or a hug?

No, but it's a good place to start, according to actor/playwright Anna Deavere Smith and those attending an invitation-only staged reading of her work-in-progress, "Field Notes: Doing Time In Education: The California Chapter."

Presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts at Berkeley Rep's Osher Studio on July 12 and 13, the MacArthur Award-winning actor's 90-minute readings were accompanied by composer and bassist Marcus Shelby and saxophonist Andrés Soto. Town hall sessions after each evening's presentation invited public dialogue on the school-to-prison pipeline that Smith said is pushing the nation's schoolchildren out of classrooms and into criminal justice systems.

Moving from desk to chair to sofa on the sparsely lit stage, Smith read material collected from more than 100 people she interviewed in Northern California.

City, legal and law enforcement officials, educators, former inmates, physicians, activists and others "spoke" through Smith, who captured their essence, not just their character. Shelby and Soto responded to her call with light-to-loud musical inserts that allowed the sold-out audience to contemplate or recover from the striking, real-world commentaries.

But Smith didn't want a review of her undeniable acting skills -- she wanted a revolution.

Assuming the tone and physicality of Linda Wayman, a school principal, Smith unfurled the all-too-familiar story of an African American woman, raised in poverty and the first in her family to go to college. Wayman's mother took her daughter to prosperous neighborhoods; pointing out homes and cars to fan her daughter's desire to go to college. It worked, and when she graduated, Wayman's mother ignored "hold your applause" and stood center aisle, shouting, "Thank you Jesus!"

Recounting girls lost to less indefatigable upbringing, Smith read Wayman's words: "If everyone was sad (about youths lost in the system), it would be a better world."

From Stockton City Councilman Michael Tubbs, shocked at a class of 6-year-olds' easy familiarity with violence to Stormee Martin, who suffered a "hair takedown" and shattered teeth at the hands of a Humboldt County Juvenile Hall guard, brutality dashed the hope of the majority of Smith's young and old subjects. A few exceptions -- Arnold Perkins, mentor, offering the dignity of a handshake to kids; Chief Judge Abby Abinanti, Yurok Tribal Court, insisting expressed sympathy is key -- stood as examples of undying faith in the goodness of kids gone bad.

Strong communities are constructed with courts that support young people, not just sentence them; societies that teach self-love, not self-hate; leaders offering a "wide awakeness" that annihilates nihilism -- and human touch embodying respect in a handshake or unwavering love in a hug. These are the baby steps Smith's characters acted upon or invoked.

Claude M. Steele, UC Berkeley executive vice chancellor and provost, led off the moderated town hall, warning that discussion of any social problem can mean "polarization happens and the whole thing drifts out of sight."

Instead, index cards with questions, distributed throughout the audience, had clusters of strangers instantly engaged in small-group conversations.

Bringing the subject to a corporate forum, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, a physician and founder/CEO of Center for Youth Wellness, SF (and one of the voices Smith chose to highlight in her reading), said adversity and the "supra load" of poverty and stress on children is the problem that must be addressed.

At the July 13 town hall, most of the public comments centered on the lack of counseling resources at K-12 schools and public agencies.

"White privilege" was mentioned by a man who said his mind had been opened to the problems facing young people of color and who thanked Smith for starting a conversation. Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, delivered one of the evening's most concise statements, saying, "A Caucasian person that faces adversity is far less likely to be incarcerated." And 16-year-old Jason King of Tracy, speaking for young people and receiving nearly as much applause as Smith had by saying, "Just show us that you care. We're gonna want to make you proud."

---