Theatre Mirror Reviews – “Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education"

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Note: Entire Contents Copyright 2016 by Susan Daniels

“Notes From the Field: Doing Time in Education”

Reviewed by Susan Daniels

Anna Deavere Smith is a force of nature. As a virtuoso, she brings a kind of theater magic to the people she portrays in “Notes From the Field: Doing Time in Education,” an expose of the connection between the educational system in America and the crisis of our country’s mass incarceration. Running through September 17 at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, this compelling, almost three-hour production depicts the school-to-prison pipeline in Smith’s inimitable style.

Often cited as the creator of documentary-theater, Smith, who has generated over 15 one-person shows - the groundbreaking “Fires in the Mirror” and “Twilight: Los Angeles” - based on hundreds of interviews, primarily about social issues, has, once again, put her passion where her mouth is - literally and figuratively. In “Notes From the Field,” Smith speaks profoundly for the voices that usually are not heard. '

Among the 19 characters in the play are:

- a Yurok fisherman and former inmate who rarely questions his litany of school suspensions, which, sadly, spits him out of school and into the prison system;
- a Baltimore protester who lands in jail for six months, with bail set at $500,000, just because he looked at the police (“Why you looking at me that way? Why you crossing in the street?”);
- an emotional support teacher from Philadelphia who witnesses a foster child so angry that he pulls a tree out of the ground, whereupon, she grabs and tightly hugs him to help alleviate his pain;
- the Baltimore videographer who records Freddie Gray’s beating and captures this torment by stating, “The camera is really the only thing we have to protect us that is legal.”;
- the African-American preacher who conducts the fervent call-and-response eulogy at Gray’s funeral; and
- Georgia Democratic congressman John Lewis, who was brutally beaten during the historic 1965 march to Selma, but receives an emotional apology from the Klan member who beat him and the policeman who observes it.

With over 250 interviews, Smith not only delivers their words, but inhabits the widely diverse personas via body language, facial expressions, vocal timbre, and even attitude. Heightening these portrayals, bassist Marcus Shelby, whose original music peppers the performance, stands stage left while interacting with Smith with a smile, a nod of the head, a shared laugh, an empathetic look. All very nuanced.

It is uncanny how this 65-year-old black woman seamlessly transforms from male to female, old to young, professional to perp, with a small costume change and a set of six white panels, created by set designer Riccardo Hernandez, that display television film or events captured from cell phone footage, showcasing scenes from recent events, as well as photographs of historical moments. Two especially gripping projections: the Texas girl in a bathing suit thrown to the ground by a police officer as she cries out for her mother, and “The Shakara Story,” where a 16-year-old, black high school student is violently flipped over her desk by a white school resource officer for refusing to hand over her cell phone to the teacher.

Whether depicting administrators, politicians, school principals, inmates, social workers, activists, students, parents or teachers, Smith’s goal is for the dialogue to cross over the footlights. With this in mind, the second act divides the audience into random groups of approximately 15 people, spaced throughout the Loeb. Led by an ART coordinator and based on a quote from the play, theater patrons are asked to write down a question we would like to ask that particular character. From there, discussion ensues.

During these 25 minutes, the conversation can be engrossing - or not - depending on the various groupings. A fine idea, but having it as a second act interrupts the flow of the play and would be better served if it were positioned at the conclusion.

Despite all the kudos directed toward Smith, the play, to some extent, still feels like a work-in-progress. Perhaps under the inventive direction of Leonard Foglia, some voices can be heightened, while others shortened. As important as every word is, though, there are times when the end result is a feeling of over saturation.

Nevertheless, “Notes From the Field” is thought provoking theater, which will likely provide great conversation after the show. Created, written, and performed by Anna Deavere Smith, it is a wonderful opportunity to see genius in action.

Notes From the Field: Doing Time in Education (through September 17);
American Repertory Theater @ Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA.
(617) 547-8300 or

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