Theatre Mirror: Notes from the Field is painful, enlightening

Publication date: 
August 29, 2016
Author: 
Michael Hoban

About midway through the first act of “Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education” – Anna Deavere Smith’s emotionally stunning, outrage-inspiring but ultimately hopeful one-woman theatrical performance on the devastating societal effects of the school-to-prison pipeline – I found myself wondering how an audience that was not primarily composed of “serious” theatergoers (in Cambridge, no less) would have received the impactful material. In particular, I was thinking of the segment of the population that embraces the dog whistle – as well as the not-so-subtle – racist messages polluting this election cycle. I surmised that they would probably just dismiss the work as more evidence of the “extreme liberalism” that many in that demographic feel that the media, and the arts in particular, espouses today – if they even bothered to stick around to watch the performance.

But Deavere Smith’s work isn’t intended for that audience – those who have been blinded by the “fair and balanced” (so-called) journalism that gives equal weight to both verifiable truth as well as misinformation, speculation and outright falsehoods – because those views are pretty firmly entrenched, no matter how wrong-headed.

That being said, this is both incredible theater and an amazing vehicle for enlightening those who are willing to listen. Deavere Smith brilliantly shines her light on the subjects – the school-to-prison pipeline (where public school systems are instituting harsher disciplinary measures such as “zero tolerance” policies for students and using police in schools to handle non-violent or non-drug-related offenses – essentially grooming students for the juvenile and criminal justice systems) and the police killings of unarmed African Americans. She tells the stories in the voices of the people on the front lines – the students, parents, teachers, administrators, social workers, politicians and inmates – in a way that editorials, statistics and news reports cannot. In addition to projections of news story footage delivered by talking heads, she uses first person narratives that are drawn verbatim from interviews she conducted with 20 of those subjects, then delivers a monologue for each – in character. Save for standup bass player Marcus Shelby (with whom she playfully interacts during the course of the evening and who also composed and performed the score) and a young man who plays a handful of minor roles, this is a one-woman tour de force.

In the first act, Deavere Smith gives us six separate multi-character sections, with titles like “Trauma” (where Emotional Support Teacher Stephanie Williams tells the story of an 11 year-old boy who is so angry that he literally tears a “a tree out of the ground” before she holds him in a bear hug until he begins to sob uncontrollably) and “Compassion”. But the most compelling are the ones that begin with disturbing cell phone footage, including “The Shakara Story”, about a young woman who we see flipped violently over her desk and dragged across the school room by the school resource officer for failing to turn in her cell phone to the teacher. There’s also an extended, six-character segment on “The Death of Freddie Gray” which includes an incredibly powerful performance by Deavere-Smith doing a fiery call-and-response eulogy ("No justice/No peace") in the person of African-American preacher Jamal-Harrison Bryant at Gray’s funeral. The vignette also includes a projection of the six officers (two black, four white) who received zero convictions in the death of Gray.

Following Act One, there is a 25 minute intermission where facilitated breakout sessions of groups of 20 audience members are conducted in and around the theater. While the intent to foster a dialogue on what we had just seen is probably a great idea in theory, the lack of any true diversity in my group, (largely educated progressives, two older African Americans led by an African grad student who taught in the Boston Public School system) prevented any really informed or spirited discussions from taking place.

While Act One left this reviewer with an agitated sense of resignation about the broken system (which also includes many other moving parts such as the role of untreated mental illness and substance abuse in the family that the play did not have adequate time to address), the second act (called a “Coda”) was truly uplifting, as Deavere Smith reminds us that we are now in the midst of a modern civil rights movement that is unfolding before our eyes. She does vignettes with James Baldwin and U.S. Rep. (and 60’s civil rights activist) John Lewis, but the most inspiring (and funny) segment was on Bree Newsome, the African American woman who shimmied up the flag pole to take down the Confederate flag from the South Carolina state capital, reminding us that we are not completely powerless against injustice.

This is fantastic theater, and even more importantly, a great way to communicate just how badly both the American educational and prison systems need an overhaul. In terms of effecting change, I’m not really sure “Notes from the Field” will have much of an impact on the attitudes of the folks in attendance on opening night – i.e. a very white (90-plus percent), educated, and presumably politically progressive group that typically make up non-musical theater audiences – because much of the material is already in the conscience of that group. One only hopes that this work gets a wider audience than just the theater-going crowd, and hopefully a performance will be taped and broadcast on PBS or HBO so more folks can see it. In the meantime, go to the ART and see it for yourselves.

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