ART's "Notes from the Field": Historic and Histrionic

Anna Deavere Smith in "Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education"
(photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

Rarely have the historic and the histrionic combined as seamlessly as they do in the current
American Repertory Theater production of Anna Deavere Smith's Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education, which begins as a monologue and segues into a dialogue. For the past three decades or more, Smith has created and nurtured a novel form of documentary theater. For this experience, she has created and written, and now performs, what is referred to as Act I, a series of monologues based on hundreds of interviews with people of extraordinarily different backgrounds (a Native American fisherman, a videographer, a protester, a pastor, and so on). After a couple of monologues that seemed hasty, Smith settled in for a very powerful, brilliant set of monologues that formed the first act. For Act II, however, she had other plans.

This is the New England premiere of the piece, after several workshops and in other venues across the country, from the West Coast to Pennsylvania to the East Coast (including Smith's hometown of Baltimore). It evolved into an interactive talk-back that was an integral part of the show itself. Based on some 250 interviews by Smith, it portrays the pervasive and abhorrent “school-to-prison pipeline” that often disproportionately impacts minorities, and the “zero tolerance” policies that lead to counterproductive suspensions of students over non-violent misconduct. It was this controversy that led to the audience being divided into groups to be led by trained facilitators, as opposed to the typical reaction that Smith refers to as “always talking about this conversation on race that we're going to have, but when do we do it? We never have it.” Following this Act II, Smith sums up the evening with a Coda that includes a quote from one of the nation's true heroes, still-serving Congressman John Lewis, from his participation in the March to Selma.

The technical elements were all simple, professional and focused, from the Set Design by Riccardo Hernandez, to the Costume Design by Ann Hould-Ward, the Lighting Design by Howell Binkley, the Sound Design by Dan Moses Schreier and especially the varied Projection Design by Elaine McCarthy. The effective Music Composition was performed live by bassist Marcus Shelby, who describes his contributions as encompassing call/response, improv, inflection and tension/release. It should also be noted that the program notes are unusually helpful, no surprise given that much is the product of the work of Dramaturg Alisa Solomon (author of last year's terrific Wonder of Wonders, a Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof).

Director Leonard Foglia likens this work to a documentary film with “civic engagement”, more a “community gathering than as a staged work of art”. Based on audience reactions (including the “call/response” effect alluded to above, common in evangelical churches), in a sense the wrong audience was present rather than the people who haven't yet gotten the message. The reality is that this audience seemed already aware of the crises that are addressed. In the end, though the theme of life with hope and faith was reinforced, it was yet another frustrating but honest example of preaching to the saved.

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