Unless you’re completely oblivious to current affairs and the world in which you live , you’d be hard pressed to not to notice the racial and socio-economic divide which has–and continues to– plague our nation. Even before our recent election, many American cities and towns have been taut with tension from race and gender inequalities, unemployment, police brutalities, failing educational systems, and a recidivism rate that is unreasonably high. Now, it could be argued, our collective emotions and reactions have hit an apex and our responsibility to reunite and mend seems to be an insurmountable task.
Anna Deavere Smith has kept her pulse on the ills of contemporary society by capturing the anger and frustration of the Crown Heights riots (Fires in the Mirror), the Los Angeles civil disturbance following the trial of Rodney King (Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992), the wretched state of health care (Let Me Down Easy), and now, an overall portrait of our collapsing school and law enforcement entities in Notes From the Field.
For avid theatergoers, Smith is dramatic catnip. Time and again, she is rightfully lauded with praise by both critics and audiences for the interpretations of her subjects and for those unfamiliar with her work, drop whatever it is you’re doing and purchase tickets to her show because she is that rare performer that only comes along as infrequently as Halley’s Comet.
Smith is also known for her extensive work in films and television (The West Wing and Nurse Jackie), but it is her solo work that has earned her the most acclaim. Her approach is simple, her delivery transcendent. Working with a recording device, Smith records a number of subjects who discuss a given theme and weaves them together in a single through line. She then carefully listens and lovingly recreates her subjects’ words verbatim. It is a powerful technique and one that never grows tired, especially because the tapestry of individuals she finds are both compelling and diverse.
In Notes From The Field, Smith introduces us to a swath of individuals ranging from Sherilynn Ifill, President of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and Georgia’s U.S. Representative John Lewis. In between, she takes us Oakland, California, Baltimore, Maryland and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where she unearths recent attacks against unarmed African American civilians by power hungry police officers. One of the most sobering and inspiring moments occurs during a church service when Smith, as a minister, describes the trials of a slain Freddie Grey. Another piercing moment in the show happens when Smith embodies an inner-city school teacher who learns that her efforts had improved the life of a once unruly student.
Director Leonard Foglia’s guidance, Elaine McCarthy’s ultra-effective projection design and Marcus Shelby’s original and mood-appropriate compositions all combine to make this night at the theater that is ironically equal parts entertainment and condemnation. You will not leave unmoved. While Smith doesn’t proclaim to have it all figured out, she does ask some tough questions of her audience and of society in general. The biggest one: Are we ready and willing to do something constructive about the injustices?
Notes from the Field runs off Broadway at Second Stage Theater (West 43rd between 8th and 9th). For tickets and information: http://2st.com/shows/current-production.