Sunday, November 20, 2016

Off-Broadway Review—Anna Deavere Smith’s “Notes from the Field”

Notes from the Field
Written and performed by Anna Deavere Smith; directed by Leonard Foglia
Performances through December 11, 2016
Second Stage Theater, 305 West 43rd Street, New York, NY

Anna Deavere Smith in Notes from the Field (photo: Joan Marcus)
We need Anna Deavere Smith more than ever. Her form of documentary theater—where she “plays” real-life individuals discussing whatever subject she has to hand, starting with Fires in the Mirror, about the Crown heights riots, and continuing with Twilight Los Angeles 1992, House Arrest and Let Me Down Easy—returns with Notes from the Field, another provocative and wide-ranging exploration of a peculiarly American problem: the uneasy relationship between education and the penal system.

The starting point for Smith is the police killing of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. But Smith is after something more substantial than simple racial politics: she charts a more systematic failure in how people who need help are treated, often being thrown them in prison instead. The words of the NAACP’s Sherrilyn Ifill—who bookends the show with remarkably clear-headed pronouncements on race, education and prison—puts it into perspective by saying “one of the huge investments that we made was in the criminal justice system. And that investment was made at the expense of other investments.” Namely, she elaborates, education and mental illness. And so it begins…

Smith introduces school officials like Philadelphia principal Linda Cliatt-Wayman and teacher Stephanie Williams, who continue fighting the good fight even while having little in the way of ammo to fight with, as Williams willingly admits: “It's like me running a jail without a gun…I can’t throw you in a closet, I can't do any of that. It's just like, I gotta keep you in order just by being me!”

There’s Pastor Jamal-Harrison Bryant, speaking to an emotionally charged audience at Gray’s memorial service, where he gives his own take on why Gray ended up dead in the back of a police van: “in a subtlety of revolutionary stance, (Gray) did something that black man were trained to—taught—know not to do. He looked police in the eye. I want to tell this grieving mother, you are not burying a boy, you are burying a grown man. Who knew that one of the principles of being a man is looking somebody in the eye.”

And, most poignant of all, there’s John Lewis, Congressman and former 1960s civil rights protestor, who was seriously injured marching with Martin Luther King. Lewis’s story about meeting ex-Klan members who apologize to his face for their viciously racist actions against him and them crying genuine tears over it is heartrending and hopeful.

As always, Smith’s chameleon-like ability—indeed, genius—to bring out the nuances in 19 very different people underlines the fact that this is a moral dilemma, not a partisan one, which is something we desperately need during this uncertain time in our country. Leonard Foglia’s astute direction shifts the visuals often enough to keep the performance from stagnating—particularly the use of a video camera to bring subjects into closer focus—and the appearance of Marcus Shelby occasionally playing an upright bass, which at times enters into a duet of sorts with Smith that makes the subject matter even more urgent.

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