Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Notes from the Field:
Doing Time in Education, The California Chapter

Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Also see Richard's reviews of Call Me Miss Birds Eye: A Celebration of Ethel Merman and Company and Eddie's review of Like Is a Dream

Anna Deavere Smith
When theatre companies host "talkback" sessions, where audiences have the opportunity to discuss a show with members of the creative and/or production team, it usually happens after the show. In her newest work of documentary theatre, Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education, The California Chapter, Anna Deavere Smith incorporates the talkback into the work itself. Act two takes the form of small group discussions in which audience members, working with a facilitator, spend 25 minutes or so sharing ideas on how to address the issues raised in act one. But with the challenge Smith lays out—America's broken education system and the impact of its brokenness on poor children of color—25 minutes makes about as much of a dent as a cream puff hitting an armored car.

But one must start someplace, and the genius of Anna Deavere Smith has always been her ability to harness the points of view of many people. Over her career she has interviewed thousands of people and brought their experiences and stories to the hundreds of thousands of people who have attended her performances. (If you are unfamiliar with Ms. Smith, she is well known for interviewing people about specific subjects or events—the 1992 riots in LA, women's relationship with justice and the law, the vulnerability of the human body—and then recreating these conversations on stage, using the verbatim words of her subjects.) By adding her audience to the conversation, Smith expands her reach even further. It's theatre as crowdsourcing. In the program, Smith states she wants to "Sound an alarm" and bring strangers together to "exchange ideas, suggest solutions, and ... mobilize around what should be done."

In the first act, Smith introduces us to a wide range of humanity, including a Yurok tribe member whose violent and dissociative youth put him afoul of both teachers and the law; Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund; the man who captured the video of Freddie Grey's mistreatment by Baltimore police; and Pedro Noguera, Executive Director of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education. Smith does a brilliant job of inhabiting these personalities, especially physically. It's wonderful to see her slip off a hat, put on a coat, flop down in a chair—and transform herself from a new elementary school teacher dealing with her very troubled children into a foul-mouthed male convict. There is a clock hanging above the stage that slowly moves from stage right to stage left, but upon which the time never changes. Symbolic, perhaps, of lots of talk from leaders, but no real progress on solving what Smith calls the school-to-prison pipeline.

Notes from the Field is, interestingly, a bit of an educational experience itself. There is much to be learned about what's going on in some of America's schools—especially if, like most of the audience at the Roda Theatre, you have the benefit of white privilege. When, for example, Baltimore schools wanted to reduce suspension rates as an indicator of progress, they offered bonuses to teachers and changed the grounds for suspension. Then there's that second act small group experience (20± people in 20 groups scattered throughout the lobby and courtyard), complete with a writing prompt and "homework" assignments.

All this is testament, though, to Smith's passion on the subject, and her commitment to inspiring real change from a bottom-up movement. She wants to enlist every member of the audience into her cause. Mamma Mia! or One Man, Two Guvnors this is not. There are a few laughs here, and some diverting moments, but mostly it's hard-nosed reality coming at you. Notes from the Field's impact comes from its truth±and its request that we in the audience start speaking that truth.

Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education, The California Chapter runs through August 2, 2015, in the Roda Theatre at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley. Shows are Tuesdays and Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Wednesdays at 7:00 p.m., Thursdays at 8:00 p.m. Saturdays at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. (no evening show on 7/19), and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Tickets from $50-$89, with discounts available for students, seniors, groups and anyone for whom cost would be a barrier. Tickets are available online at, or by calling the box office at (510) 647-2949 or during box office hours: Tuesday-Sunday 12:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.

Photo: by Kevin Berne

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