The Harvard Crimson: Anna Deavere Smith's "Notes from the Field" an Extraordinary Achievement

Publication date: 
September 2, 2016
Author: 
Trevor J. Levin
In an increasingly polarized and sound-byte-driven America, little is rarer than serious investigations of complex issues. Thankfully, Anna Deavere Smith’s latest play “Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education,” running through Sept. 17 at the American Repertory Theater, presents an alternative to the talking heads of cable and newsfeed clips of John Oliver. Composed (like several of Smith’s earlier plays) of verbatim passages from interviews Smith has conducted, “Notes from the Field" presents a startling range of perspectives from within the nation's schools, prisons, and communities—a feat all the more impressive considering that Smith plays every character. In “Notes from the Field,” Smith has created a stunningly nuanced, inventive, and emotionally resonant investigation of how the country values the lives of young people of color.

“Notes from the Field” is ostensibly about the “school-to-prison pipeline,” defined in the extensive program notes as “the punitive and discriminatory school disciplinary practices that drive children into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.” (Actually, the play focuses enough on surrounding issues like police brutality, economic despair, and the history of the civil rights movement that the title might be misleadingly specific.) In the first act, such wide-ranging characters as former inmates, school administrators, pastors, and psychiatrists come to life in five- to ten-minute monologues. Each suite is named after one of its more memorable lines: In a scene called “Best Buy,” Kevin Moore, the videographer of the violent arrest of Freddie Gray, describes how members of Black Lives Matter took him to the electronics store to “arm” him with cameras. Particular highlights include “Breaking the Box,” taken from Dr. Jamal-Harrison Bryant’s eulogy of Gray, and “The Shakara Story,” the Act One closer, in which Niya Kenny describes why she filmed a police officer throwing her classmate from her desk. “How can you mind your business?” she asks in the final line before the lights dim. “That seems like something you should make your business.”

Smith, ever the virtuoso, fully inhabits each character. With director Leonard Foglia, dialect coach Amy Stoller, and movement coach Michael Leon Thomas, she captures their mannerisms, personalities, and passions, displaying tremendous range. More importantly, she visibly shares their earnestness and pain as relates to the material. Smith’s skills as an actress are matched only by her skills as a documentarian: She has drawn an astonishingly raw and expressive script from her interviews. Because she portrays every character with compassion, even those with seemingly opposing perspectives, her snapshot of racial inequality in America develops with uncommon detail and subtlety.

Smith performs on an elegant, surprisingly flexible set designed by Riccardo Hernandez. White vertical panels descend from the ceiling, five midstage and five upstage, functioning as projection screens and curtains. Projections, designed by Elaine McCarthy, include news montages and statistics between the monologues to add context, as well as scenic backgrounds and occasionally live closeups of Smith during the speeches. By serving as interludes, they also ingeniously allow Smith to seamlessly change costumes. The effect is an immersive hour-plus of relentless, emotionally charged theater without a dull moment. And that’s just Act One.

It’s a lot to absorb. Probably with that in mind, Act Two takes a bold risk. After a brief intermission, the audience is divided into groups of roughly a dozen and sent to various corners of the Loeb Drama Center. The ensuing facilitated discussion comprises Act Two. Experiences will doubtlessly vary, but The Crimson’s group included a surprising diversity of backgrounds and responses to the show (although none were all that out of place in the People’s Republic of Cambridge): “Notes” clearly creates a variety of associations for lifelong Bostonians, Harvard students, teachers in the metro area, and other theater patrons. While it doesn’t match the intensity of the first act, the discussion serves as a useful tool in processing and reckoning with the sprawling social problems raised in Act One. The play ends with a 25-minute “coda” of three more monologues, which widen the play’s lens for a dramatic, forward-looking conclusion. The play’s run time—nearly three hours, highly unusual for what is basically a one-woman play, plus pages of further commentary in the program from Smith and dramaturg Alisa Solomon—reveals Smith’s eagerness to examine the issues in their full context and complexity.

“Notes from the Field” certainly offers no easy solutions, but it does offer hope. The coda culminates in Smith’s exceptionally powerful performance as John Lewis speaking on healing and fraternity, echoing a recurring theme that addressing monumental challenges requires individual commitments to justice on a national scale. The play is not only a great work of theater but, in its empathy, curiosity, and comfort in complexity, a significant addition to the national discourse.

 

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