Joyce's Choices: Theater: Anna Deavere Smith Schools Us

Publication date: 
August 31, 2016
Author: 
Joyce Kulhawik

Marshalling her considerable creative forces and once again singlehandedly conjuring a wildly diverse array of characters, Anna Deavere Smith schools us from the front lines of education vs.race in these not yet United States. NOTES FROM THE FIELD: DOING TIME IN EDUCATION is her latest one-woman extravaganza of monologues and has been adapted directly from interviews she conducted with folks on many sides of an issue involving incarceration, poor communities and public education. And it’s a revelation.

She was a whirlwind of outrage and righteousness as the pastor crying for justice from the pulpit at Freddie Gray’s funeral. We found out what it took for a lone woman of color to take that long climb up the pole to remove a confederate flag from its perch above a southern government building. She tackled our disbelief at the sight of footage showing a black teenage girl sitting at her desk in class being wrestled to the ground by a white police officer after being reprimanded for using a cell phone and refusing to leave the room.

The production directed by Leonard Foglia is spare and penetrating, simply staged and lit, amplified by video, news footage and projections, all of which brings the crisis front and center onstage at the A.R.T. and demands a response. Literally. Act II breaks the audience into discussion groups in order to engage us more deeply with the material– at least that was the intent. The 25 minute discussion group I participated in didn’t yield much, but it’s a start.

NOTHING, however, was more potent than Smith on that stage accompanied by composer Marcus Shelby on bass playing a soulful blues-based soundtrack to the tragedies unfolding before us. Nothing was more potent than Smith using the fluid instrument of her voice and carriage, altering her intonation and accent, and holding steady the perspicacity of her observations through verbatim testimony, as she channeled a multiplicity of viewpoints: parents, protesters, artists, students, preachers, psychiatrists, legislators, educators, inmates.

My eyes were opened to state laws (and Massachusetts has such laws) which allow criminal disciplinary action for minor school infractions which feed the “School-to-Prison” pipeline, turning disadvantaged kids as young as 4 years old into criminal offenders for minor offenses, suspending, expelling, and incarcerating them when what they need is to be held closer. Smith’s moving portrait of Taos Proctor a native American Yurok Fisherman and former inmate moves us through the desolate truth of this man’s serial “imprisonment” by way of a rigged system.

The evening is illuminating, shocking, disheartening, and finally empowering. The courage of a third grader speaking up after witnessing abuse, or a teacher overwhelmed after one formerly difficult student thanked her, decades later, for her loving dedication is a stirring reminder that we can make a difference. This is the overarching theme of Smith’s  “notes from the field.” Over and over again, this artist, activist, educator calls on us through these portraits to find our consciences, to “make it our business,”  to speak up and not give up– even if we can help  “just one” person at a time.

After we returned from our discussion groups, Anna Deavere Smith emerged for a sublime coda culminating in the now well-known story of U.S. Representative John Lewis. Lewis was approached in his office one day by an elderly white man and former KKK member Elwin Wilson who had beaten Lewis 50 years earlier at a bus station in South Carolina for being black. Wilson apologized and asked forgiveness; he got it.  The tale is the final brick in the path Anna Deavere Smith has paved here, first with vivid portraits which allow us to walk in another’s shoes, inspiring our compassion and empathy, and finally with the last crucial step of the way to healing, to a stunning apology, followed by forgiveness.  We all have to make a move, you and me. Smith’s “Notes From The Field” light the way.

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