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Notes From the Field

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 2, 2016

Anna Deavere Smith
Photo by Joan Marcus

Few of the people Anna Deavere Smith portrays in her new play at Second Stage, Notes From the Field, could be considered articulate in the traditional sense. Seemingly half of the more than two-hour running time is consumed with them tripping over words, either failing to find one that means exactly what they wish to say or repeating one three, four, five times in a row, as though all other syllables have been squeezed out of their hearts. Unusual for a one-person show (which this essentially is), and even remarkable among Smith's own documentary work, the echoes fall so hard and so often that the force they create is undeniable.

But their lives and the single story they're telling move ahead unabated to create a powerful evening. It's composed of verbatim excerpts from interviews Smith conducted about something that, in one way or another, is close to most of their hearts: the "school-to-prison pipeline" through which young, predominantly African-, Native-, or Latino-American men and women move from one all-consuming governmental institution to another without ever receiving the aid that might help them avoid a tragic fate. The students are hopeless. The teachers are helpless. The parents, even if well meaning, are underequipped. And the legislators are underfunded. At every point along the way, it's implied, there's theoretically a way to solve this problem, if only someone will invest the time needed to make it happen.

Smith approaches the subject from all angles, sometimes general, sometimes specific, but always compelling. At two different times, she plays Sherrilyn Ifill, the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund, who ties the bulging prison population to an increasing strain of shortsighted fiscal conservatism. A psychiatrist and an "emotional support teacher" explore the role of trauma in personal development at both the genetic and the behavioral levels. Four different people weigh in on the death of Freddie Gray: the man who caught it on video, a protester, a pastor at Gray's funeral service, and a councilmember (and mayoral candidate) from Stockton, California. A journalist and an 18-year-old girl discuss a police officer's stunning removal from her school desk a girl who would not obey multiple requests to turn over her smartphone, and his actions' messy aftermath.

There's not much to be happy about here, and although Smith does highlight a few pockets of levity within many of these scenes—a mother stumbles, quite humorously, for the word "stuff" during her recitation, a hulking man from the Yurok Tribal Reservation brightly balances his size with his criminal inclinations—she uses them to pave a path toward a deadly serious discussion of responsibility at every level of society. Smith avoids judging overly harshly, and gives all perspectives on hand a fair hearing. A Maryland inmate, imprisoned under chilling circumstances, argues in favor of her own incarceration, for example, and no one entirely lets the kids off the hook (even while acknowledging their circumstances are often not of their own doing).

Not everything about the production is at the same elevated level. Riccardo Hernandez's set is little more than a series of sliding panels used for displaying Elaine McCarthy's informative projections and violently scene-setting video. Howell Binkley's lights are fine, and Leon Rothenberg's sound acceptable, if occasionally too loud; Ann Hould-Ward's costumes are not much more than suggestive, but have a handful of witty, quick-change moments. Marcus Shelby's live bass music (he's the only other person besides Smith ever onstage) offers a nightclubby vibe that is at times at odds with the work's essential grittiness. And though Leonard Foglia's staging moves well, there are times it could put even more emphasis on Smith than it does.

Foglia does, however, help Smith elicit great beauty from her time onstage. She is as capable of wrenching tears (a Maryland inmate who was imprisoned far too young) as cheers (that pastor, whose vision of Jesus is of a fiery black activist), both in the construction of her writing and her pungently sensitive performance. She doesn't exactly vanish into most of her roles the way, say, Sarah Jones currently manages in Sell/Buy/Date at MTC, but she anchors each of her evocations in a way that fuses them together within a larger context and makes them mean more together than they likely would apart (which Jones can't quite pull off).

For this reason, her two strongest portrayals are her last. First, activist Bree Newsome describes the harrowing process by which she tried to right area of wrong by removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina Capitol after the 2015 massacre at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. And finally, Representative John Lewis, who was present in Montgomery, Alabama, during the "Bloody Sunday" marches on March 7, 1965, explores both the difficult background of those events and the healing process that can result once we see each other not as competitors, or haves and have-nots, but brothers.

One suspects Smith is at her most energized playing these two because they suggest what's possible rather than wallowing in the horrors that are. But one of her biggest points is that you can't achieve the future you desire without passing through, and improving on, the incorrect present in which we, like all of these figures, are mired. Each of those myriad stutters brings us closer to the person who's saying them, which will in turn bring us all closer together. That's why, even when the events Smith covers in Notes From the Field are at their most depressing, such sounds are music we're all better off for having heard.

Notes From the Field
Through December 11
Second Stage Theatre Tony Kiser Theatre, 305 West 43rd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Second Stage Theatre

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