by Michael Bracken
Master portraitist and social commentator Anna Deavere Smith is back on the New York stage, this time taking on education, the prison system, and the often-violent law enforcement construct that straddles the two. Notes from the Field, at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theatre, employs the same technique that has worked so well for Smith in earlier shows like Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, both about racially charged riots in the localities identified in their titles.
Smith is an incisive interviewer. Not that we see any actual inquiries, although we almost feel like we do. What we see is a reenactment of one side of various verbal explorations Smith conducted. In the show, she takes on the role of the person being interviewed, speaking to us, the audience, as if we were the interviewer.
The monologues are appropriately augmented by video. We are, after all, a smart phone nation; that’s how we learned about the law enforcement abuses featured in the play. Videos punctuate Notes from the Field, projected onto a grid of screens reminiscent of Mondrian boxes but more uniform, with the images spanning several screens at once. Scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez has given projection designer Elaine McCarthy a simple yet stylish canvas on which to display the moving image.
And the footage, coming from both news broadcasts and cell phones, is telling. The former is like a seal of authenticity and the latter a punch to the gut of immediacy. Both create context for Smith’s portrayals, a grown-up, and very sobering, version of show and tell. Images are wide ranging, including a protester smashing a car windshield, the Confederate flag being taken down in South Carolina, and a teenage girl being hurled across the room by a school resource officer.
The projections are the bones Smith endows with flesh and blood and in-the-moment life. But she begins with a video-free prologue, in which she becomes Sherilyn Ifill, President of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Ifill takes the long view, talking about our history of investments in the interstate highway system, middle class suburbs, and now, while we won’t admit it, the prison system. But she starts off simply: “It is impossible to talk about the criminal justice system. Mass incarceration. Without talking about education.”
And there you have the plot, so to speak, of Smith’s opus, which was originally subtitled Doing Time in Education. School to cell. That’s the light in which the play is meant to be seen. That’s the link Smith is exposing, sometimes directly, more often by implication, but by the end of the night it’s one that’s hard to miss. Smith has us follow her among parents, academics, educators, an inmate, a former inmate, a student, a jurist, a journalist, and some boys from the ‘hood. She even includes two Native Americans, a group that often gets overlooked and yet is disproportionately represented in the prison population.
Smith surrenders completely to the persona of each of her interview subjects. When she is Kevin Moore, the deli worker who captured Freddie Gray’s beating on his phone, you believe Kevin is on the stage speaking to you. And the same for Denise Dodson, who’s been in prison for twenty-three years, and for all the other people Smith becomes. Smith does her homework, gathering material that’s often provocative and always genuine. She then slides into her characters without judgment and without preaching.
Director Leonard Foglia keeps his star moving, and lighting designer Howell Binkley deftly keeps her in the spotlight. Bassist Marcus Shelby starts off to the side of the stage, providing low key accompaniment during scene changes. But eventually he moves closer to center, sometimes playing as Smith speaks, which I found intrusive. And she starts interacting with him, which is confusing since you don’t know who they’re supposed to be to each other. Still, it’s a small detail in a large and otherwise dynamic work.
Through December 11th at the Tony Kiser Theatre (305 W 43rd Street). www.2st.com . 2 hours 15 minutes with one intermission.
Photos: Joan Marcus