Notes from the Field: Anna Deveare Smith Takes on the School to Prison Pipeline at the A.R.T. through Sept. 17

deveareIn “Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education,” Tony nominee Anna Deveare Smith has bitten off a lot and given us a lot the chew on. Tough stuff, most of it, no smooth digestion here. Has she given us too much? Well, maybe.

Smith, the writer and sole actor in the play running at the American Repertory Theatre’s Loeb Drama Centre through Sept. 17, has tackled the many and varied situations that arise out of a school-to-prison ethos, so prevalent among boys and men in the inner city black communities of America.

The audience at press night was primed – especially after an intro by ex-Gov. Deval Patrick’s wife Diane (the ex-gov couldn’t make it, bee stings, severe swelling) – and were ready to slide into the good lefty comfort zone of agitprop theatre. I count myself among those folks most of the time; I mean I loved the late Howard Zinn’s “Marx in Soho.” And there probably couldn’t be a more welcoming landing spot for this material than Cambridge for its  New England premiere.

“Notes from the Field” was inspiring in many places, joltingly so at times, and yet also repetitive and tedious. I was reminded of a Billy Bragg show I caught at the Paradise years ago (Reagan era) when it was about 50% music and 50% left-wing political rabble rousing and at least one exasperated voice in the crowd (speaking for others I’m sure), yelled,  “We’re with you Billy! Play some music.)

In “Notes,” conceived by Smith and directed by Leonard Foglia, what we thought was going to be a brisk first act clocked in at about an hour-45 and could’ve used some judicious trimming and the excision of a few characters. There were 16 in the first act – mayor, psychiatrist, former inmate, principal, student, protester, videographer etc. And at some points, it just felt like piling on and made the play feel like a work-in-progress.

But first the good stuff. All the characters Smith inhabits – and boy does she inhabit them – were culled from about 250 field interviews she conducted. We’re not talking about someone farming that out to staff; she did the one-on-ones and came back to share their stories, presumably editing what they said into a multi-part story that could work as theatre.

A word about Smith: TV people know her from “The West Wing” (as Nancy McNally, the national security adviser) and over the past few years as the administrator Gloria on “Nurse Jackie.” But she made her bones in the theatre – two Tony Award nominations and loads of writing/acting cred. She has done the solo shows “Fires in the Mirror” and “Twilight: Los Angeles.”

Smith creates a multi-layered tapestry of voices, and Smith shifts bang-bang from one to the other, sometimes letting you know by different vocal inflections or the changing or shedding of footwear. There’s also the name and title popped up on the video screen behind her, of course. This show may be relatively bare-bones, just her and sometimes bassist Marcus Shelby, but like most recent A.R.T. productions it does not lack for video enhancement or visual dazzle.

The theme is the school-to-prison pipeline, a story most of us know but one that hasn’t been brought into such dramatic focus before. The trajectory starts very young we are told – 7500 black children suspended from public preschool in a single year. Public pre-school?! Jesus. A signal, perhaps, that maybe these kids are flotsam and jetsam and should be treated this. (A week or so after I saw this show, I’ve started reading Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad,” and have to say I’m getting doubled resonance, with the slavery of the early 18th century reverberating here.)

Some of the highlights: An educator realizing that a convict wants to be sent to a prison with a top-notch writing program, reacting with, “Since when is that an opportunity?”

There are six white panels behind Smith, where at various times images or videos complement the narrative. The videos are shocking and yet not. Not shocking because we’ve seen many of these on our computers or TV screens; but shocking because they’re in large scale and Smith is providing a narrative or palpable outcry. We saw numerous scenes of police misbehaving badly. Smith inhabited the mind of Kevin Moore, who recorded Freddie Gray’s beating and manhandling on video, and it is particularly heart-wrenching because at the end we’re shown the cops’ faces and the text informs us that every cop involved in his death beat the rap.

When Smith gets inside the skin of an incendiary, purple-clothed gospel preacher, Jamal-Harrison Bryant, at Gray’s funeral, he (she?) whips the crowd – or portions thereof – into a call-and-response frenzy. Is this real life or interactive theatre?

Smith is an emotive actress and it didn’t take long for me to transcend her fame, her known face, to accept her in a multitude of roles. Her voice, her tempo, her gestures, occasionally her garb, all shifted to fit the person’s character she was portraying. She may not have presented us with a solution but she gave theatrical voices that would, in most cases, otherwise go unheard.

Then, there’s the second act and this is problematic. I left before this started. What it was, it was explained prior to the start, was a time when Smith would leave the stage and the audience would break up into sections of 20-25 people and talk amongst ourselves about what we’d seen/learned for 25 minutes. Then, Smith would come back for a coda.

I was, frankly, worn out by the end of the first act. I didn’t want to partake in, or even listen to, a discussion with a couple of dozen random people where we’d be dealing with group dynamics and half-formed thoughts. It felt like forced reaction. I like being able to react to a play – not just agitprop like this, but any play – and talk it over with my wife or others who’ve seen. I didn’t want to feel like I had to. I didn’t want to feel like I was in school and this was part of the lesson plan. It seemed like it would be interactive theatre – sort of, but not really, because you’re not interacting with Smith, you’re doing so with your group of strangers (or friends who’ve just met.)

Other reviewers – more dutiful than I – made it through what was a three-hour experience and some came out the better for it.

And so, I’ll cede the virtual floor to my friend and former colleague at the Boston Globe, Patti Hartigan who freelanced this for the Globe, about the end: Smith returns for a coda designed to leave the audience with a sense of hope. She connects the civil rights movement of the 1960s with this current historical moment, with a moving speech by Georgia Congressman John Lewis, who was brutally beaten during the 1965 March to Selma. The coda reaches back to the past to find a pathway for the present, but it stretches to tie in with the school-to-prison pipeline theme. The point, perhaps, is that this particular historical moment, as grueling as it is, is a time when change can happen, and maybe 50 years from now, mercy will be possible. And “Notes from the Field,” with so many unforgettable moments, is a call to action.


By Anna Deavere Smith. Directed by Leonard Foglia. Presented by American Repertory Theater. At Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, through Sept. 17. Tickets start at $25, 617-547-8300,

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