Talkin' Broadway: Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education

Publication date: 
August 29, 2016
Nancy Grossman

Theater needs an audience to fulfill its mission, to engage with the entertainment being produced on the stage. Under the leadership of Artistic Director Diane Paulus, the American Repertory Theater has sought and practiced myriad ways of expanding that notion at both of its performance venues. With the New England premiere of Anna Deavere Smith's Notes From the Field: Doing Time in Education at the Loeb Drama Center, Smith and the A.R.T. further expand the boundaries of theater by pushing the envelope of audience participation in a new direction. Each ticket holder is assigned to a discussion group that meets with a facilitator in a corner of the building, their dialogue effectively becoming the second act of the play. In contrast to a typical post-show talkback, the process encourages listening as well as personal reflection on the scenarios of the first act, and heightens the receptivity for Smith's final monologues in the so-called coda.

As has been her practice for over twenty years in previous one-woman shows (among them, Pulitzer Prize finalist Fires in the MirrorTwilight: Los Angeles, and Let Me Down Easy), Smith is the creator, writer and performer of Notes From the Field, based on hundreds of interviews she conducted around the country with former inmates, parents, students, activists, educators and politicians. Disturbed by the phenomenon of the so-called school-to-prison pipeline, referring to overly punitive and racially discriminatory school disciplinary practices that deposit children into the juvenile and criminal justice system, Smith put on her journalist's hat to find the stories of the affected and the afflicted and bring them into the spotlight. Smith as actor then becomes the voice of the people, channeling the personae of about a dozen and a half real-life characters with a stunning range of mannerisms, tone and emotions.

Augmented by massive video projections on an upstage screen, and bluesy, resonant notes plunked out by Marcus Shelby on the bass fiddle, Smith is relentless in getting her points across. Images of Freddie Gray being dragged into the back of a police van in Baltimore, a 14-year-old African-American girl in a bathing suit being wrestled to the ground by a white officer, and a white school officer in Columbia, South Carolina, yanking an African-American high school girl ("The Shakara Story") out of her seat and across the floor are particularly disturbing. It must be incredibly difficult for Smith to narrow the selections for inclusion in the final product, but each is compelling on its own merits. In the aggregate, the effect is a sustained emotional and intellectual pounding that is overwhelming and discomfiting, as it should be.

Having the opportunity to share thoughts and feelings from act one, even in a group of strangers, is cathartic. Without reporting or attributing any specific comments, the consensus in our group seemed to be that times have changed, that people of color are used to being treated differently or poorly, and we all need to consider our personal responsibility to act, not merely observe. After releasing some of the emotional steam, it was refreshing to experience the voices and viewpoints presented in the coda as they were somewhat more encouraging and hopeful that the darkness leading up to this moment may provide the spark of a new civil rights movement.

Kudos to Anna Deavere Smith for starting the conversation that we never seem to have about race in America. However, it is just one of many conversations that have been neglected and must be initiated or continued if any substantial change is to occur. Perhaps one of the most telling comments in the play is spoken by an articulate former prison inmate in Baltimore, Smith's hometown. He said, "We can't wait for the leaders to make it better. We have to make it better." Powerful and profound, like the rest of Notes From the Field. Do not miss it.

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