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‘Notes From the Field’ review: Anna Deavere Smith’s deeply moving performance

Anna Deavere Smith brings her acclaimed one-woman show

Anna Deavere Smith brings her acclaimed one-woman show about America's failed justice system to TV audiences on HBO. Photo Credit: HBO

THE SPECIAL “Notes From the Field”

WHEN | WHERE Saturday at 8 p.m. on HBO

WHAT IT’S ABOUT Acclaimed playwright and actor Anna Deavere Smith performs her Off-Broadway play, seen at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theater in late 2016, in which she channels some 18 people, some of whom went straight from school into the courts and then prison. It’s the centerpiece of Smith’s so-called “Pipeline Project,” which she began in 2013 by interviewing more than 250 people — students, judges, police, correction officers, inmates — as part of an exploration of race and justice. From those 250, she culled 18 people that she voices here. They include: Kevin Moore, a deli worker who videotaped the beating of Freddie Gray in Baltimore; Tony Eady, who works at North Charleston High School in South Carolina; Denise Dodson, a Maryland inmate who trains dogs for people with disabilities; Bree Newsome, the woman who climbed a flagpole in South Carolina to remove the Confederate flag; and author James Baldwin.

MY SAY The idea of a one-woman show, or one-man show or one-anything show is tough to get your head around because of the inescapable fact of that oneness. TV viewers have long grown accustomed to the many. We’re used to seeing lots of people say lots of things because that’s what we’re used to in real life. Also, by cutting out the role of the imagination — ours — TV does our work for us.

But Broadway figured out the magic of “one” long ago, or at least Hal Holbrook, Spalding Gray and Anna Deavere Smith did. Largely nourished by the primal elements of story and music, the one-person show can have a power and beauty all its own. As spectator, the novelty soon wears off and the trance begins. You are in somebody’s spell and have no idea why.

Anyway, that’s one way to explain why “Notes from the Field” is so effective. The others are just plain obvious. Smith is a magnificent performer who becomes each of these people pro tempore. It’s dazzling stagecraft meets dazzling spectacle. Her words — their words — come in waves, some thundering, some whispers, but there’s a rhythm to all of them that forces an elemental response, as if swaying to inaudible music. Smith’s voice booms, raps, cajoles, pleads. Her face morphs, then re-morphs. No two are the same, or at least that’s the highly effective illusion here. Anna Deavere Smith disappears. Someone else has taken over her body. It’s weird. It’s also wonderful.

Most of these are voices of average people who do what we all do — explain a trauma by way of a story, and every one does have a story: the dishwasher and ex-con; the “emotional support teacher” in Philly; the fisherman on an Indian reservation in California. The so-called “pipeline” — how the underprivileged are funneled into the prison system — isn’t the common denominator as much as simple injustice. There’s a quiet resignation with many of Smith’s subjects but a determined sense of hope, too. There’s hardly any anger or recrimination. There’s plenty of stoicism.

Smith leaves off with Rep. John Lewis of Georgia — an uncanny Lewis, by the way — who offers this benediction: “Hold on. Never give up. Never give in. Never lose faith.” It’s about as perfect, and cathartic, a wrap as it sounds.

BOTTOM LINE A humane and deeply moving performance — many of them — by a supremely gifted performer.

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