In her latest one-woman masterpiece, Notes From the Field, Anna Deavere Smith returns to a method she’s worked in for nearly twenty-five years: talking to communities in crisis, collaging the interviews into a verbatim script, and then performing all the monologues herself. In Fires in the Mirror, Smith dived into the Crown Heights riots; Twilight: Los Angeles, she went out West to investigate the chaos and heartbreak after the Rodney King verdict. This time, the group in crisis isn’t the embattled residents of a single city, but the entire United States. In the often overwhelming Notes, Smith documents a tangle of dysfunctions: the school-to-prison pipeline, rampant police violence, systemic anti-black racism, and the resulting trauma of millions of young Americans.
This sort of solo performance is by no means unique to Smith — Nilaja Sun and Sarah Jones do something similar, following in Smith’s footsteps. But her status as a pioneering plawright gives her interview access to nearly anyone. In Notes From the Field, she channels civil rights leader and Georgia congressman John Lewis, activist Bree Newsome (who scaled the flagpole outside the South Carolina Capitol to remove its Confederate banner), pastor Jamal Harrison Bryant (who spoke at Freddie Gray’s funeral), and Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. She also talks to the judges, parents, teachers, and administrators who deal daily with the systems at which Smith takes aim. She becomes a mother serving a 23-year jail sentence; she slouches deep into a chair to play a boy who tells us about persecution by the Baltimore police. “No, it’s not a race thing,” he says when asked why the cops beat him up. “It’s a hatred thing.”
Whenever Smith changes character by slipping into a jacket or a pair of glasses, Riccardo Hernandez’s set (a series of six screens) lights up with news footage and cellphone videos of the past year’s outrages. We see footage of Gray being frogmarched into a paddy wagon, a cop pulling a gun on a fourteen-year-old, a girl in algebra class being “put down” by a raging security officer. Leonard Foglia’s direction intercuts these painful realities with occasional gestures of loveliness, like Elaine McCarthy’s video projections of the fog-shrouded coast of the Yurok Tribal Reservation in California. It’s a rare vision of beauty, although Foglia never lets it linger long enough for us to catch our breath. But he also makes sure Smith is not always alone — composer-performer Marcus Shelby sometimes stands beside her, improvising on his upright bass and giving her smiling, gentle support.
None of the tragedies in Smith’s documentary work are exactly news. We’ve read about them, protested them, and anguished over their seeming intractability. Ifill, of the NAACP, in particular presses for investment in a solution, arguing that another civil rights movement is at hand. “There’s a lot of heaviness in the country,” Ifill says. Indeed, Notes‘ theme is this tangible sense of a burden pressing down, one that too many are suffering under every day. But Smith’s powerful style of living journalism uses the collective, cathartic nature of the theater to move us from despair toward hope. She shows us beautifully how we might — and that we must — share the weight.
Notes From the Field
Directed by Leonard Foglia
Second Stage Theatre (Tony Kiser Theatre)
305 West 43rd Street, Manhattan
Through December 11