Boston Events Insider: Anna Deavere Smith is So Much More Than a "One-Woman Show"

Publication date: 
August 29, 2016
Author: 
Claudia A. Fox Tree

Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education is so much more than a "One Woman Show."  Along with playwright/actor Anna Deavere Smith and the bass player, Marcus Shelby, who accompanies her on stage, there is a small army of theater assistants, host of conversation facilitators, crowd of audience members hungry for discussion of major societal issues, and universe of characters wanting to be heard. "Watching" is an understatement.  The "work" of this show is in building a community to forward social justice.

There was palpable excitement as the Loeb Theater filled to capacity: patrons already examining the criminal justice system crisis and voices buzzing about topics of Black Lives Matter.  Performance begin with a welcome from a prominent member of the greater Boston community.  Tonight it was Diane Patrick, standing in for former Governor Deval Patrick who was unable to attend, reading what appeared to be her husband's words, asking us to "disrupt our role of spectator and passive observer."  At first I wondered what this meant, and then I learned.

I felt like I was watching "the year in review" as Deavere Smith seamlessly wove together dozens of interviews, news images, and viral videos.  By changing outfits, adding glasses, trading footwear, donning a tie, and holding a walkie-talkie, she became a teacher, student, parent, pastor, lawyer, or judge.  Her posture and mannerisms, the lilt of her voice, and even the focus of her eyes sometimes blurred the line between reality and the "character" of real life personalities, such as, Sherrilyn Ifill, NAACP legal Defense and Educational Fund President; Kevin Moore, videographer of Freddie Gray beating; or Bree Newsome, who climbed a flag pole in Columbia, S.C. to remove the Confederate flag.  Kudos to Deavere Smith's hard-working support staff in creating costumes and movement that facilitated her 20 character transformations. 

Six panels hung in the front of the stage and six in back.  They were used to screen photos, videos, and paintings, creating the setting for each character. When Deavere Smith portrayed Michael Tubbs, mayor candidate of Stockton, CA, the painting on the screen had monochromatic people, but the United States flag was in color, suggesting the promise America holds for so many, a symbol that resonated throughout the production.  As Deavere Smith's Kevin Moore paced the stage with purposeful, righteous anger, another actor with a hand-held video camera followed.  The recorded images were plastered on the hanging screens, giving a sense of live action - what it must have been like for Moore when he was filming Freddie Gray's "alleged" fatal spinal cord injury:  a "You were there" moment.  Again her support crew, this time for sound, lighting, and projection, were key to all scene transitions.

Deavere Smith tells us about kids and the system that sets them up for prison, instead of careers.  As Tony Eady, North Charleston High Students Concerns Specialist, Deavere Smith states, "Most kids are in 'school jail' because of their mouth."  As Cheryl Hendrickson, Educational Specialist, she says, "They are not lost, they are wandering, and we need to get them back on the road." She implores us to "say something nice to just one kid" because it could be just what's needed to create a better world.  In the character of James Baldwin, Deavere Smith reminds us that kids need role models so they can visualize potential.  As a teacher, the challenge of balancing "required" curriculum with what students "need" resonated with me.

Deavere Smith, in purple cleric robes, interpreted Minister Jamal Harrison Bryant's powerful Freddie Gray eulogy, engaging the audience in a "call and response" of "No justice/No peace." Unfortunately, the small percentage of persons of color in tonight's show couldn't carry the mantra in the primarily white audience, who may not be familiar with the cultural style expected in this interaction.  At that moment, it was clear to me that any "call to action" needed to be across age, gender, and race, and Deavere Smith was only beginning to build that bridge.

Preceding the intermission, the 500 audience members are divided into groups of a dozen people or so via alphabetical letters assigned in the program.  More than 50 "Conversation Hosts" are listed in the program to facilitate a 25-minute group discussion. They offer refreshments, introductions, and a small space to have dialogue.  Each group has a different key question about a character or a topic from Act I. It works brilliantly. We are asked to be more than spectators; to take action.  Be more than an individual from a far away town; be a community joined with purpose.  Be more than angry; have empathy and compassion. 

Anna Deavere Smith has taken her ethnographic observations and translated them into personal narrative, the story of our time.  She reminds me why I got into education - to be the teacher who helps students, even if just one student, find their path.  She challenges us to think about our next step on the path to social justice.  In character, she says, "In this moment, there is a moment when change can happen" and "How can you mind your business when something happens that you should make your business?" She begs us to find our moment.

While there were many powerful moments in this show, I have to admit, when Bree's story was told, I cried.  I just couldn't hold it in anymore.  I wondered, "What action would cause ME to go to jail for?"  It was her action that speaks to what Anna Deavere Smith is trying to do with this show, "We can't wait for leaders to make it better, we have to make it better ourselves.  We need to be closer together, not farther apart."  And as congressman John Lewis, she leaves us with "This IS (still) the civil rights movement."

I was so pumped up when I came home that I wanted to stay up and write the review immediately, but it was way too late since the show ran almost three hours, though it passed in a "blink of an eye."

President Obama gave Anna Deavere Smith the National Humanities Medal in 2013 and she won the 2016 Guggenheim Fellow for Theatre Arts for this play.  She's been nominated twice for a Tony, and twice for an Obie. See this show. 5 stars.

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