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A CurtainUp Review
Notes From The Field
By Elyse Sommer
The prolific Ms. Smith has navigated a film and academic career and yet managed to keep creating the highly dramatic verbatim style documentaries she pioneered. Notes from the Field is her eighteenth multi-character solos. It's also her most ambitious and theatrically impactful and it brings her back to the Second Stage where she last used her methodology to explore health care issues with Let Me Down Easy.
There's certainly no shortage of major issues of concern, especially vis-a-vis race in America for a theatrical historians like Anna Deavere Smith to explore. Unfortunately she can intensify and get us caught up in the magnitude of the themes tackled, but given the very real interviews and situations they're built from, her plays are not feel good outings with definitive happy endings in sight.
The 17 people whose cadences and exact words Smith captures with remarkably emotional nuance and authenticity during the course of two hours, intensify the magnitude of the school-to-prison-pipeline situation that's the backbone of Notes From the Field. But meeting these people as so masterfully embodied by Ms. Smith will hardly send us out the door especially hopeful that the "investments" in school and other desperately needed programs will be made — and, if so, whether they will effectively bridge the racial divide that's still a factor in the schooling and policing to which all too many Americans of color are exposed. Never narrow in her focus the current exploration even includes Native Americans who aren't often included in contemporary racial issue plays.
The play's key concept — the connection between schools and prisons, their failure as stepping stones towards better lives and instead becoming a pipeline into prisons over populated by minorities. This theme is established and brought round robin when Smith first disappears into Sherilyn Ifill, President of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Ifill gets right to the the point with "It is impossible to talk about the criminal justice system. Mass incarceration. Without talking about education."
Leonard Foglia, who also directed Let Me Down Easy, is again on board to insure the fluidity of the character-to-character shifts. That production's set, costume and projection designers are also back to make Notes. . . transform this unabashedly political message piece into a vivid theatrical experience.
Ricardo Hernandez has designed an upstage grid for Elaine McCarthy's often electrifying projections that often whiz across several screens at once. Howell Binkley further underscores the mood supporting atmosphere. Ann Hould-Ward provides just enough additions to Smith's basic pants and shirt to help define some of the characters. These are donned right on stage with the aid of a stagehand so there's no missing the magic of Smith's incredible gift for completely convincing re-invention. The frequent presence of composer-bassist Marcus Shelby adds a nice but not totally necessary theatrical touch.
The projected footage puts the stories we hear into utterly authentic and often deeply disturbing context. Kevin Moore's gut-wrenching replay of the Freddie Gray's killing he captured on his phone camera is followed by the operatic "Breaking the Box" eulogy of PastorJamal-Harrison Bryant that roused many in the audience to call and response participation. Less bombastic but equally moving is longtime prison inmate Denise Dodson's account of how she found a way to give her life some meaning.
Representatives of the establishment, including a California politician and several High School principals are also heard from. Principal Linda Cliatt-Wayman expresses understandable embarrassment about upper teen aged students reading at first-grade level (a statistic that also applies to 85 percent of all U.S. prison inmates).
There are a few scenes that inject some much needed humor into this grim story. Towards the end of the first act we have an over-involved Latino mom. To wind things up with a somewhat contrived shift in a different and imbued with can-do hope finale. This takes us to the South Carolina take-town of the confederate flag, amusingly executed by artist-activist Bree Newsome in a segment entitled "Not a Whim Thing to Do."
This photo-op protest act was fun. But climbing a flag pole to remove a symbol of a slave owning society struck me as somewhat less inspiring than reaching for the mountain of Doctor King's vision. But then this is a play and Anna Deavere-Smith is a theater person. Fortunately she's also a true blue visionary and her commitment to this school-to-prison pipeline project is not limited to this potently entertaining play.
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Notes From The Field
Written and performed by Anna Deavere Smith
Directed by Leonard Foglia
Scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez
Costume design by Ann Hould-Ward
Lighting design by Howell Binkley
Sound design by Leon Rothenberg
Projection design by Elaine McCarthy
Music composed and performed by Marcus Shelby
Stage Manager: Brendan Fay
Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes including one 15-minute intermission
2nd Stage, 43rd Street
From 10/15/16; opening 11/02/16; closing 12/18/16
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at November 7th performance
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