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In such acclaimed previous one-person shows as Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles, Anna Deavere Smith concentrated on single, racially charged incidents and their ramifications. That she deals with a multitude of horrific and troubling events in her new theater piece serves as a depressing reminder that social conditions have only become more polarized in the intervening years.
Notes From the Field, which received its world premiere earlier this year at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater and now opens at New York’s Second Stage, follows Smith’s trademark style in which she portrays dozens of real-life figures with dazzling, chameleon-like versatility. The text is based largely on transcripts of interviews she conducted with some 250 people, many involved in the education and criminal justice system, America’s so-called “school-to-prison pipeline” when it comes to minorities.
Much of the piece concerns the incident involving Freddie Gray, who was beaten by Baltimore policemen while being arrested for possessing a switchblade. Thrown into the back of a police van, the 25-year-old later died of injuries to his spinal cord. None of the six police officers involved received any punishment for their actions, and Baltimore was wracked by riots. Among the figures portrayed in the segment are Kevin Moore, who filmed the beating on his cellphone, and Pastor Jamal-Harrison Bryant, who officiated at Gray’s funeral. The excerpts from the latter’s speech, delivered by Smith in rhythmic, preacher-like cadences, are so emotionally stirring they elicit vocal responses from the audience.
Donning orange fisherman’s pants, Smith portrays Taos Procter, a Native American former prison inmate who describes his experiences, which fortunately for him didn’t include rape. “I’m 6’4,” almost 300 pounds, I don’t think no one’s gonna try to rape me!” he points out. “Prison don’t do nothing but make you a worser person,” he says.
Among the other figures portrayed are Tony Eady, a high school “Student Concerns Specialist” who previously worked at a Florida maximum security prison (“I had the privilege of meeting Ted Bundy,” he boasts); Stephanie Williams, an “Emotional Support Teacher” who talks about working with severely troubled children, including an 11-year-old boy so angry that he once pulled a tree out of the ground; and Bree Newsome, an activist arrested after she climbed a flagpole to remove the Confederate flag flying on the South Carolina Capitol grounds.
The show ends with a moving segment in which Smith portrays Congressman John Lewis, relating how he received an apology from the young, white police chief of Montgomery, Alabama, upon a return visit to the First Baptist Church, and a similar plea for forgiveness from a Ku Klux Klan member who had beaten him in the 1960s.
There are many powerful moments in the show, in which Smith’s monologues are accompanied by subtle musical underscoring composed and performed by onstage bassist Marcus Shelby. Director Leonard Foglia provides an elegant production featuring large video screens showing disturbing footage of such harrowing incidents as police officers wrestling a bikini-clad black teenager to the ground, or violently manhandling a female high school student who had refused to give up her cellphone.
But despite the performer’s skills and the vital importance of the social issues discussed, Notes From the Field proves too diffuse to have the intended impact. The piece never quite comes into dramatic focus, instead accumulating its horror stories to punishing rather than illuminating effect. With its endurance-testing 2½-hour running time, the show ultimately becomes as numbing as it is provocative.
Venue: Second Stage Theatre, New York
Cast: Anna Deavere Smith, Marcus Shelby
Creator-writer: Anna Deavere Smith
Director: Leonard Foglia
Set designer: Riccardo Hernandez
Costume designer: Ann Hould-Ward
Lighting designer: Howell Binkley
Music: Marcus Shelby
Sound designer: Leon Rothenberg
Projection designer: Elaine McCarthy
Presented by Second Stage Theatre, American Repertory Theater
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