“It was very alarming to realize that poor kids are pathologized and sent to jail for things that middle class and rich kids could do and have it called mischief,” Smith tells Variety. But then her work took her to the Yurok Reservation, where she says she “fell in love” with the Yurok people. “And then love was carrying me from there on.”
“Notes from the Field” explores the lives of people who were incarcerated as youths, as well as those who are fighting for justice in a number of ways, including Bree Newsome, who was arrested for civil disobedience in 2015 after she climbed the South Carolina State House flagpole and removed the Confederate flag and Niya Kenny, who went to jail after intervening when a police officer ripped a teenage girl out of her classroom chair.
The film follows in the footsteps of Smith’s previous works, including “Fires in the Mirror” and “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,” in process, format and tone, with Smith performing a range of character monologues. (The former told the stories of the 1991 riots in Crown Heights, while the latter looked at the riots that followed the beating of Rodney King.) For “Notes From the Field,” Smith constructed the monologues from the hundreds of interviews she conducted (250 in four locations, starting in Northern California with the Yurok).
The piece explores stories that were widely told in the media, such as the death of Freddie Gray and the work Sherrilyn Ifill is doing as the head of the NAACP legal defense and educational fund, as well as some news items that had shorter shelf lives, such as Newsome and Kenny’s stories.
“Most people, when they think about youth in the criminal justice system, seem to think about boys,” Smith says. “Something’s the matter with that. Girls have a story, too.”
Smith says that girls often get in trouble with police for “running their mouths,” as with Kenny, as well as a 14-year-old McKinney girl who was thrown to the ground by a corporal called to investigate a “disturbance” at a pool party in 2015.
“When I think of my friends who have teenage daughters, they become very concerned about the vulnerabilities of their bodies in sexual actions, but in this particular climate, in these particular schools where there are police officers walking the halls, the young ladies are as vulnerable as boys to guns, to handcuffs, to being physically thrown around,” Smith says, adding that even those in middle class neighborhoods, as Kenny was, are not immune. “We forget that these boys and girls are boys and girls in the hands of the powerful criminal justice system.”
What was important to Smith is not just the power of the stories, but the way in which they are told. For the 90-minute movie, she says she has over 300 hours of material.
“Out of that I really pick the moments in that where I say the people are talking but for me they start to sing,” Smith says of her process. “That’s my metaphor. They start to speak in very, very particular creative ways.”
Adding different voices and physicalities to the characters, not to mention costumes and set pieces (both practical and digital projections behind her), added more texture to the story Smith wanted to tell. “I think of it as a painting or tapestry now,” she says.
Smith began working on “Notes From the Field” in 2012, during a very different political climate, let alone entertainment landscape. She performed it live Off-Broadway in late 2016 before adapting it for television.
She buried herself in the work, continuing to make tweaks and edits to the material up until showtime. It was a way to keep finessing the language, which she wanted to be “very, very beautiful” but it was also a way of ensuring the storytelling would be emotional each time.
“Basically when we’re in rehearsal, I write a new play every day until it opens,” Smith says. “So it’s really like waiting for Jell-O to gel — a lot of patience and a lot of work.”
Adapting the stage play to a televised version for HBO meant more finessing, not only to ensure she hit the right runtime but also to be able to speak to a wider audience. She also plans to bring the HBO version of “Notes From the Field” to a variety of communities and “maybe a couple of high schools, if we’re lucky” to screen the project and “keep the conversation going on a grassroots level.”
“Notes From the Field” is designed to hold a mirror up to society — which means not every character Smith portrays has a happy ending. (Taos Proctor, one of the Yurok who she fell in love with during the process of making this project, suffered bad burns from a fire and required hospitalization.) But she is particularly proud to report that quite a few are stepping into leadership roles and working towards a greater good.
From her vantage point, Smith says, “injustice continues to prevail in a way that is very disturbing.” But there has been a change in the way we can address it.
While it was “revolutionary” when George Holliday videotaped police officers beating Rodney King in the early 1990s, now everyone is walking around with a camera in his or her pocket and the potential to capture what they see — and share it live.
“Technology gives the average walking person the opportunity to reveal what’s happening in their communities,” Smith says. “I think that what we were looking at when I wrote ‘Twilight’ was really the criminal justice system, and now we have the chance to see that another public institution — a very important public institution — our public school system is frayed. Maybe it was in a bad state then, but we weren’t looking as closely as a nation at it as we are now.”
“Notes From the Field” premieres Feb. 24 on HBO.