Notes from the Field

Play: Notes from the Field Theatre: Royal Court Theatre Playwright: Anna Deavere Smith Director: Leonard Foglia Review by Heather Marks  

Award-winning playwright, actress and professor Anna Deavere Smith returns to London for the first time in 25 years to deliver a compelling examination of the uniquely American school-to-prison pipeline.  

Notes from the Field is a verbatim piece of theatre, composed of excerpts from a pool of 250 interviews Smith conducted with people ranging from school teachers, students and parents to former inmates, civil rights activists and medical professionals. Each interview imparts a necessary truth about the way African American, Latino and Native American children are being routed from schools into prisons.

All the interviewees are played by Smith in her signature performance style against the backdrop of a high red brick wall. Onto this wall Elaine J. McCarthy’s video design projects clips and images: some show harrowing videos of police brutality, such as the beating of Freddie Gray by officers; the girl in a bathing suit slammed to the ground by an officer; and the Spring Valley student violently thrown out of her chair in class.

Others show the dark history of America’s not-too-distant past, such as the row of shelves filled with jars each containing soil from the spot where a lynching took place in Alabama.

This haunting collage of images, video and the personal creates a nuanced understanding of what is happening to young, poor people of colour, disproportionately affected by over-policing, a lack of school funding, prejudice and structural racism.

In total, 17 individuals are presented to us, framed purposely into chapters: The Death of Freddie Gray, On the River, The Shakara Story, Trauma, Never Give Up. Some of the most powerful moments are when Smith gives a rousing sermon as Pastor Jamal Harrison Bryant at the funeral of Freddie Gray, expressing the wisdom of Bryan Stevenson, lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, and showing the bravery of Bree Newsome, the civil rights activist who took down the confederate flag in Columbia in 2015.

Smith is a compelling performer who doesn’t have to move much to keep the audience’s attention. Very few performers have this kind of charismatic presence, but Smith commands your gaze – and ear, aided by Leonard Foglia’s no-fuss direction and Marcus Shelby’s stalking compositions on the double bass.

In the final scene, Congressman John Lewis speaks of forgiving those who violently beat him in his youth as a civil rights campaigner and the classic hymn Amazing Grace is sung with the audience.

The absolution and hymnal togetherness seems too neat an ending to the fear, frustrations and hurt of the previous scenes. However, this hopeful ending from Smith may serve as a reminder that burnt bridges can be rebuilt and Lewis is someone who has gone toe to toe with Jim Crow – if anyone can speak of forgiveness, it’s him.

Notes from the Field is showing at the Royal Court until Saturday 23 June 2018.

Tickets can be booked here.

Photo credit: Joan Marcus