Don’t let the throwaway title deceive you. In “Notes from the Field,” Anna Deavere Smith has created one of her most ambitious and powerful works on how matters of race continue to divide and enslave the nation. Ostensibly, the show is about the “school-to-prison pipeline” in low-income public education systems, but Smith’s scope is greater than a look inside classrooms. Here she finds connections to a failed justice system, police violence and even to the civil rights movement of the ’60s. All this — and a bravura performance — make for a stunning production.
In her most notable empathetic projects, “Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities” and “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,” Smith zeroes in on the people surrounding a particular incident and reveals, through verbatim re-creation of their words, the human dimensions that deepen the perspective to those tragedies. In this new production at Off Broadway’s Second Stage Theater, the broader connections take time to build in strength — and sometimes the story-telling strays — but Smith lays out a compelling case for the bigger picture.
Smith as Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, is the only one of the 17 characters depicted who makes two appearances in the show. She opens with a captivating analysis that grounds the play from the start, saying how problems of public education need a massive investment of will to right a historic wrong — and then later returns with a call for follow-through action.
But there’s plenty of passion, too. There’s Philadelphia high school principal Linda Wayman, who speaks of the significance of a proud mother’s “Thank you, Jesus” moment at her child’s graduation. Michael Tubbs, a councilman and mayoral candidate in Stockton, Calif., tells of six-year-olds recalling relatives shot to death with heartbreaking matter of factness. Jamal-Harrrison Bryant, the pastor who gave Freddie Gray’s eulogy, evokes the Lazarus story with a rousing call for self-determination that had audience members saying “amen.”
Based in scores of interviews with judges, activists, psychiatrists, pastors, educators, students, and parents, Smith recreates the speech, gestures and passions of her subjects, capturing pain, pride, exhaustion, wariness and humor. The on-stage presence of composer-bassist Marcus Shelby not only gives musical transition and punctuation to Smith’s dramatic suites, but it also gives her someone to play off.
The solo stories are staged with efficiency and grace by director Leonard Foglia. Riccardo Hernandez’ set of six white panels provides visual variety and the backdrop for Elaine McCarthy’s projections. Howell Binkley’s lighting and Leon Rothenberg’s sound contribute to the spellbinding atmosphere, too.
Lending additional emotional wallop are the viral video clips of assaults by law enforcement, about which several of the characters onstage speak: A Texas girl in a bathing suit being restrained by police while she cries out for her mother; a young girl being dragged out of a classroom in South Carolina; and Gray’s assault by Baltimore police.
After the Gray video, Smith depicts a still-dazed, internalizing Kevin Moore, a deli worker who recorded Gray’s beating on his cell phone. He says simply, sadly: “The camera is really the only thing we have to protect us that is legal.”
When Smith becomes Baltimore protestor Allen Bullock, another perspective lands like a punch: “This ain’t no race thing. I’ve seen black police officers and white police officers do the same things. It’s not a race thing. It’s a hate thing,”
In the end, Smith keeps healing and hope alive — and makes her largest leap — when she plays Georgia Congressman John Lewis, who was beaten during the 1965 March to Selma, and who relays a tearful act of forgiveness and redemption — and summons a call for a new civil rights movement.
This production is absent the second-act opener that was presented at its run at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass. There audience members were sorted into groups to discuss the issues of the play before Smith returned for show’s wrap-up.
But in this production the piece stands powerfully on its own, leaving audiences with the echoes of unforgettable voices caught in a truly rigged system.