Masterful Mimicry Exposes a Painful Pipeline: Review Anna Deavere Smith’s Notes From the Field

In 1992, after the first read through of Anna Deavere Smith’s play Fires in the Mirror, a one-woman show examining the 1991 riots in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Smith received an apathetic response. Everybody in the audience, made up largely of theater professionals, she recalls, “said that no one will care about this play.” The reason, she was told, was that “people do not care about race.” On the night before its first preview Smith received a message on her answering machine telling her to turn on the television. The officers involved in the Rodney King beating had been acquitted and riots were erupting in Los Angeles. By opening night, due to the overwhelming response to the production, Smith said her “life had changed.” Theater had changed as well. Not only had Smith brought a direct discussion of race relations in the United States to the New York mainstage, but she had done it through a uniquely devised theatrical convention. Part journalism, part documentary theater (now sometimes referred to as verbatim theater), Smith skillfully wove together first-person accounts of people hailing from different cultural and ethnic milieus, in the case of Fires in the Mirror, African American and Jewish residents in a Brooklyn neighborhood, to give a nuanced and unbiased account of the riots. Smith employs this same theatrical convention in her latest production Notes From the Field, in a tour-de-force performance that explores the school-to-prison pipeline in the United States. The result is yet another successful attempt at supporting her theatrical thesis that we are a nation of “we” and stories told through multiple perspectives have the potential to tell the greatest truths.

When information is collected “from the field,” thoughts of an investigative journalist digging for truth or intelligence gathered by trained spies come to mind. Wherever the field may be, the subject matter is almost always high stakes—just ask any war correspondent. In Notes From the Field, Smith’s field is not Iraq or Afghanistan, it is the American education system.  And her notes are meticulous. Smith spent years interviewing over 250 people to gain a better sense of a system which pushes largely minority students in the public educational system from classroom to incarceration. By embodying men and women both directly and indirectly affected by the school-to-prison pipeline, she gives the audience multiple perspectives, primary sources who reflect the reality our educational system has come to. One perspective comes early in the play, when Smith takes on Stockton, California City Council Member and Mayoral Candidate Michael Tubbs, an African-American Stanford graduate whose father has spent his life behind bars. Tubbs recalls reading to a classroom of six-year-olds the story of Martin Luther King Jr. When he reached the page where King was shot, he was hoping to quickly turn it, not dwelling on the despondent subject matter. He was, however, interrupted multiple times by students who directly related to the violence. Children whose uncles, fathers, brothers had been victims of violence. Before he could even turn the page it was revealed that “every student in that classroom knew somebody who'd been shot or was a victim of a violent death.”  These are Smith’s notes from the field. And while the field is not a war-torn nation, it remains a field that is a major cause for concern. America’s youth. Our education system and the inherent problem facing some of our schools.

Though considered a solo show, two devices are used to accompany Smith onstage. First, the use of now all-too-familiar images and videos projected behind Smith, setting up a character or a situation before she takes it on. The choice to use multimedia, videos like that of Freddie Grey and sixteen-year-old Spring Valley High School student Shakara, who was pulled from her chair by a school resource officer, aid in assisting Smith’s method of storytelling. A video followed by a character’s first hand account of the event makes for a powerful vignette.

The other onstage device used is that of a live musician, Marcus Shelby, who composed original music and plays bass onstage during different moments of the production. Shelby’s jazzy underscore compliments the play’s tone. A simple shift of tempo helps alter the mood of the production and Shelby also serves as useful sounding board for certain characters Smith plays, at times looking directly at him and questioning him during her speech.

And while the overall theme of Notes From the Field undoubtedly leans heavily on the serious side, it is not without humor. Smith’s mimicry is so nuanced that she is able to embody educators, parents and professionals who although they are in very hard situations, they never take themselves too seriously. Smith captures the text as well as cadence of speech and physical stature of her subjects, becoming her characters and sometimes her characters find moments of humor despite their sometimes unfortunate circumstances.

Overall the show flowed seamlessly in Smith’s verbatim theatrical style. Unbiased, truthful and matter-of-fact she strays from opinion politics and sticks to the script: the actual words of her subjects. Though 210 minutes in two acts, the performance flows quickly, a testament to Smith's chosen text and structured storytelling as well as direction by Leonard Foglia. The production runs almost like an open dialogue about her subject matter, the pipeline mostly, where eloquent speakers say their piece one at a time. Incidentally, in the first iterations of the project at both Harvard and Berkeley Repertory Theaters, the production included a third act. Audience members were broken down into small groups to discuss the content, perhaps to even begin drafting solutions. Second Stage, who is producing the New York run, chose to omit the small group break down, its artistic director Carole Rothman explaining to the New York Times that “New York is a little different than Harvard in terms of how people deal with their time.” While time is one concern for New Yorkers, the chance to participate in such a talk-back would be a unique experience. Why not give the option? Fortunately, unlike other theater readily available in New York, the talk back is almost inevitable. Good theater remains in you and Notes From the Field leaves conversing about the show, even after having left the theater, inevitable.

Sadly what the play lacks is a proper ending, which is of no fault of the playwright. Notes From the Field ends with a memorable anecdote by Congressman John Lewis in a section entitled “Never Give Up,” but perhaps the show could have ended where it began: with Sherrilyn Ifill (the only character Smith portrays more than once). Ifill, President and Director-Counsel for NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, speaks about growing up watching documentaries about civil rights with her father, remorseful for missing the landmark marches and speeches, the heydey of the movement. She goes on to correct herself stating today is as important to the movement as the era of Dr. King and Malcolm X and future generations will look back to now with the same fear of having missed out on a powerful time for change. 

How do you end a play about mistreatment, a broken system or ongoing race relations in the United States? There is no ending. It is an ending that we seek as a nation.