WHAT “Notes From the Field”
WHERE Second Stage Theatre, 307 W. 43rd St.
INFO $92-$107; 212-246-4422; 2st.com
BOTTOM LINE Gripping Anna Deavere Smith solo about the devastating link between childhood trauma, school and prison.
Anna Deavere Smith introduces us to 17 very different people in “Notes From the Field,” her latest uncanny solo journey in multi-character documentary theater. And each time I think back on some of Smith’s resonant monologues, the memory is not of her but of the real-life person — the politician, the teacher, the prisoner, the protester. With little more than a change of jacket or a shift in her vocal rhythm, the virtuoso theater medium and social-science reporter morphs into indelible characters.
If anything, her portrayals feel even more distilled, nuanced and complete than the ones she epically recreated through the decades about urban conflagrations in Crown Heights and Los Angeles, or crises in Washington and health care.
The subject this time is especially focused — nothing less than what she and others call the “pipeline” that connects our de-facto school segregation, thriving prisons and young brains permanently altered by the emotional trauma of neglect.
If this sounds preachy, try to forget the last paragraph. As always, Smith has interviewed hundreds of disparate people before shaping a gripping, unpredictably entertaining mosaic of voices on and about the same concerns. And yet, there is an extra sense of urgency in “Notes From the Field,” which, through development, grew beyond its original subtitle, “Doing Time in Education.”
The extraordinary two hours begin and nearly end with Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP legal defense fund, who describes the school-prison pipeline as the “one civil rights issue of the day.” Lest we doubt, Smith goes right into a talk with the deli worker who videotaped the Baltimore police dragging Freddie Gray into the van where he died. “The camera is the only thing we have to protect ourselves that’s legal,” the young man says as his now-iconic video is projected on some of the five vital onstage panels.
Leonard Foglia has expertly directed with screens of pertinent video and more production values than usual, including pitchy, nonverbal commentary by onstage string-bass player Marcus Shelby. But nothing feels slick. A special moment comes when a prisoner who got her degree during 23 incarcerated years says she missed out on “a lot of important information.” Thanks to Smith, we understand more of it here.