Educators, activists, politicians, and a few students and inmates bestride Second Stage in Anna Deavere Smiths stirring Notes from the Field, a one-woman exploration of the school-to-prison pipeline, a sociological theory arguing that the unduly harsh and punitive treatment in the public education system that minority children receive conditions them for eventual incarceration. Prison or or death. Theres really no other alternatives or options for our boys and men of color, says one California mayor.
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Smith begins the piece alone, though she is eventually joined by the composer Marcus Shelby and the melancholy notes he summons from a standup bass. The set is minimal and the direction, by Leonard Foglia, almost invisible. Interstitial sound and video give Smith just enough time to don a blazer or a pair of waders and vanish into the next character.
This is one of Smiths particular gifts, to disappear into the people she plays, to take an assemblage of interviews and recorded talks, and bring them to astonishing and visceral life onstage. She finds a distinct voice for each. Where other performers might edit out the pauses, digressions and paralinguistic utterances (the uhs and ums), she uses them to call forth the speaker.
Her passionately argued point is that schools and institutions should provide support, encouragement and proper counseling to children, rather than typecasting their behavior as criminal and leaving the underlying issues (poverty, abuse, learning disabilities) unaddressed.
Smiths greatest works, Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, use a multitude of voices with differing opinions to help artist and audience come to terms with one particular event. But Notes From the Field more resembles Smiths last work, Let Me Down Easy, as it is less divisive and less cohesive than it might be.
Here, too many of the voices are of the same opinion, the exception being a discipline-minded and unsympathetic Student Concerns Specialist, who tellingly used to work in a prison. Perhaps those who favor punitive measures wouldnt speak to Smith, but the absence is felt, the conclusion to side against them too foregone. And Smith sometimes gets distracted, particularly by the death of Freddie Gray. At least one of the pieces related to Gray is almost impossibly moving, but his story relates tangentially, at best, to the pipeline theme.
Smith isnt usually in the business of supplying answers. Her pieces more typically help audiences to ask better questions about equality, about justice, about how we ought to treat one another. But here, she offers a remedy: Say something nice to just one kid.
This call to empathy is perhaps a too simple solution, but especially when suggested with such hortatory force, its worth a try.