Bay Windows: Three hits for the fall

Publication date: 
September 15, 2016
Jules Becker

Anna Deavere Smith is a riveting veteran stage educator. Just think of the powerful lessons this gifted African-American actress-writer has taught about the primacy of understanding the full spectrum of ethnic, religious and societal points of view. Hub theatergoers surely remember her landmark solo efforts “Twilight: Los Angeles,1992” and “Fires in the Mirror.” Her latest and equally timely original theater text “Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education”— seamlessly directed by Leonard Foglia at American Repertory Theatre—not only ranges as before back and forth between participants and observers in a documentary-like piece but also includes an intriguing interactive 25-minute middle section calling on audience members to listen to and teach each other through questions, answers and comments.

With “The Death of Freddie Gray” as a kind of event anchor, Smith evokes such essential voices- from principal, teacher and psychiatrist to parent and student. Diversity is always a trademark of her portrait-rich pieces, and the arresting repertoire here includes former correctional facility inmate Steven Campos and Yurok Tribe chief judge Abby Abbinanti. Before Smith’s impassioned Coda, audience members split up into small groups that in effect turn audience members into portraits ourselves meant to educate each other about personal and communal concerns and increase understanding about educational challenges and potential solutions.

Smith’s shimmering Coda begins with a brilliant evocation of gay African-American writer James Baldwin’s own insights. Here she captures his rich attitude and graceful demeanor in his “Walk on a Leaf.” Especially stirring in a kind of performance epiphany is her concluding spirited delivery of “Brother” from civil rights movement giant Congressman John Lewis. Do time with Anna Deveare Smith; her inspiring “Notes from the Field” frees us all.

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