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Theatre in Review: Notes from the Field (Second Stage)

Photo: Joan Marcus

Anna Deavere Smith is the greatest vanishing act in show business. The way she disappears, in full audience view, into each character, capturing their affects, mannerisms, vocal tics -- anything that distinguishes them as individuals -- is an astonishing technical trick, which allows each person to have not just his or her say, but to come alive on stage, bringing the full breadth of humanity to his or her arguments. In this piece, they examine every aspect of the school-to-prison pipeline, the ad hoc system by which minority youth in the United States grow up without the tools to become fully responsible adults, get into increasingly bad trouble, and end up in the ever-swelling prison system. As Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP, puts it, Instead of investing money in mental health or education, we invest it in incarceration, and is it any wonder that's where so many young people end up?

As per usual, Smith has dived deep into her subject, traveling the country to assemble a gallery of people whose lives have been touched by this phenomenon and using her considerable editorial skills and gifts as an actress to create a kind of mural out of their clashing/complementary points of view. The show begins with a lengthy meditation on the death of Freddie Gray, the young Baltimore man who thrown into the back seat of a police van, arrived at the police station in a coma. Kevin Moore, who videotaped Gray's arrest, makes blazingly clear that his rough handling by the cops led to his shattered spinal cord. ("The camera's the only thing that we have that can actually protect us, that's not illegal, you know what I'm saying?") In Elaine McCarthy's stunning projection design, we see excerpts from Moore's tape, Exhibit A in the argument that brutal treatment of minority men has become thoroughly normalized. Allen Bullock, a local activist, makes clear that it's not just a black-white thing. "I done seen plenty of black officers doin' it, and I'm black, you feel me, to black people. And I seen plenty of white police do it. And I done seen 'em do it together." Jamal-Harrison Bryant, the pastor at Gray's funeral, gives a thundering eulogy that sums up the perilous of state of black manhood: "And your son, in a subtlety of revolutionary stance, did something that black men were trained to -- taught -- know not to do. He looked police in the eye. I want to tell this grieving mother, you are not burying a boy, you are burying a grown man. Who knew that one of the principles of being a man is looking somebody in the eye."

From there, Smith fans out across America, taking in a multiplicity of voices. Taos Proctor, a Native American fisherman, describes his life in prison: "I did everything I could to stay on top of the food chain." Abby Abinanti, a judge in Proctor's Yurok tribe says that kids misbehave and "get expelled from school, then they get mad at somebody, or they attack a school resource officer, then they get handcuffed, then they go to jail, or probation, or juvenile hall, and then it just goes from there and it -- it just keeps going!" Tony Eady, a "student concerns specialist," puts his troubled kids in "school jail" to teach them how to avoid the real thing. Leticia de Santiago, a mother in Stockton, California, recalls how her fierce attention to her children kept them on the straight and narrow. Among other things, the geese she kept in her yard would awaken each time the kids tried to sneak out of the house at night.

Notes from the Field is especially acute in noting the terrible pitfalls that so many young people face along the road to adulthood. Because it is so easy to pathologize these kids, the answer increasingly seems to involve inappropriate diagnoses, followed by pills. Linda Cliatt-Wayman, principal of a Philadelphia high school, describes how a staggeringly high number of her students are in special education, whether they need it or not. Victor Carrion, a psychiatrist, adds, "I am getting notes from teachers saying, 'This child has ADHD. Please place on Ritalin.' And I'm like, 'Wow. The diagnosis has been made. There is a treatment plan. Am I needed for anything?'"

Then again, the problems are so devastating, one hardly knows how to address them. Stephanie Williams, an emotional support teacher in Philadelphia, describes a student who had drug-addicted parents and had been sexually abused by his father. As you might imagine, he had enormous difficulty controlling his rage. "I have never seen an eleven-year-old pull a tree. Out of the ground," she says.

As Smith makes blazingly clear, this state of affairs is informed by an entire system of interlocking assumptions, most of them based on racism, and trying to change it involves overturning one received idea after another. Smith, as always, allows everyone to speak at length, a strategy that allows the enormous complexity of the situation to sink in. As always, she is riveting. Among her most affecting characterizations are Denise Dodson, who has been behind bars for 23 years, quietly noting that her eldest daughter was born in prison; Bree Newsome, a South Carolina political activist who nervously, hilariously recounts how she got pulled into a plan to shimmy up a pole in front of the state house to remove the Confederate flag; and, in the production's most heart-stopping sequence, Congressman John Lewis, recalling how, decades after the fact, the Klansman who beat him comes asking for forgiveness.

Everything about Leonard Foglia's production has been arranged to show off Smith and her incredible talent to maximum effect. Riccardo Hernandez's set consists of a show curtain made of six vertical panels that rise to reveal a bare stage backed by six more panels; these serve as surfaces for McCarthy's projections, which include shocking videos of police brutality; scene-setting location shots; facts and figures about incarceration and education in the US; live video of Smith as Kevin Moore, the videographer; and powerful black-and-white images of Freedom Riders in the 1960s South. Howell Binkley's ever-shifting lighting design is ideally suited to a show that is constantly in transition. Ann Hould-Ward has dressed Smith in an ensemble consisting of a series of layers, a strategy that allows her to switch characters almost instantly, with a few tiny adjustments. Adding enormously to the mood is the bluesy underscoring composed and played (on the bass) by Marcus Shelby, whose presence nicely complements the star's. Leon Rothenberg's sound design is sensitively handled, a key component in maintaining a constant level of intelligibility, given the dense, slang-filled text and use of various regional accents.

Seeing Notes from the Field these days, with a racist serving as the president-elect's top advisor, and with white supremacist groups openly celebrating that their day has arrived, some might fear that Notes from the Field might seem oppressive, an exposition of insoluble problems at a time when many are grappling with a terrible sense of loss. As Ifill notes, "The end of serious investment in our public-school system happened with the work of my predecessor, Thurgood Marshall, and desegregation. With Brown versus Board of Education. When you had massive resistance in the South. When the Prince Edward County School Board decided to close the schools in Virginia for five years rather than -- rather than integrate...We broke our contract with education and we've never been able to get back to where we were." But Smith clearly believes in the audacity of hope, as the above quote from John Lewis shows. Speaking of the place we find ourselves in, Ifill adds, "Difficult as it is, and as heavy as it feels, there is a privilege in it. Because, in this moment, this is the space where change can happen. It only can happen in a country as entrenched, particularly around issues of race...the moments when we move are the moments when we have to confront ourselves." It's good to know that one of America's finest playwrights and radiant actresses -- who happen to be the same person -- has dedicated herself to the task of helping us through those confrontations. -- David Barbour

(23 November 2016)

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