Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, London *****
Sometimes you just know you’ve seen the experience of a lifetime.
Twenty five years ago, Anna Deavere Smith came to London with a heart-felt, revealing portrait of New York tensions between the Jewish and Afro-American communities. She was a force to be reckoned with then, pioneering a form of theatre based in verbatim reports but energised by performance.
How much more so now has Deavere Smith returned for alas, all too short a run – though heaven knows, she’s on that stage alone for two hours and that’s a marathon enough for anybody.
Notes From the Field is an even more searing, brilliant, majestic account – an examination, profound in its detail and presentation by Deavere of disenfranchisement and the broken `soul’ of America. And make no mistake. This is not just a story of the broken American dream but of our broken valued system here, too, of the collapse of human values, the sheer unadulterated cruelty of `the system’.
Based on over 250 interviews no less, Deavere Smith has explored the route that has led to the heavyily dis-proportionate number of African-Americans who end up in prison, are excluded from school or killed by `the authorities’.
She interviews inmates, judges, educationalists, psychiatric `experts’, mothers and many more – and her examination leads her to very clear conclusions if the choice of who she inhabits and presents before us is anything to go by. Slavery, genocide and poverty – and further enslavement through poverty of those already broken by the inheritance of slavery, its unending consequences and white supremacy.
But in the beginning, notes one of her experts, there was genocide, perpetrated on the American Indians – anything that appeared as `different’.
Time and time again, the people Deavere re-inhabits and delivers – and inhabit them she does, taking them deep into her own consciousness – penetrate whatever skin covering we purport to present as mechanisms for dividing us off from our fellow men and women. All collapses before the command and presence of Deavere as performer, analyst and humanitarian.
Today’s news is writ large in Notes From the Field. There are examples of how young African-American girls are handcuffed in school, on streets – shocking scenes that could have been whipped straight off this week’s front pages with the scenes at the US-Mexican border.
There is too an account by a mother of what she does to keep her children from prison, how she even `smells’ them for traces of smoke or drugs, as they sleep. And she keeps geese who will cackle at the first sound of the kids sneaking off at night for secret rendezvous. The lengths to which a responsible parent must go to protect her young says it all and is no less shocking than the video clips of brutality.
Meanwhile, a Finnish teacher expresses complete incredulity at the idea of a child being handcuffed and explains how she keeps order in a classroom – with a `look’. But even she has to admit that the dissipation of a once homogenous society is having its effect.
There are so many instances in Notes From the Field that strike a human chord, whether it’s from the lawyer who had to stop his practise after failing to save the life of a prisoner of low intellect from execution, or the Emotional Support worker handling `troubled’ children and witnessing at first hand the rage stoked up by past traumas, abuse and discrimination
Trauma is a word used frequently in Notes From the Field. A lawyer, Stevenson, who set up an Equal Justice Institute in Alabama, talks of the inner `injury’ that so many carry within themselves from childhood. `I do what I do because I’m broken, too and need to find justice.’
His search echoes the final character Deavere delivers. A veteran of Selma and Civil Rights, Congressmen John Lewis describes a white police officer apologising for beating him up at Selma and offering to hand over his police badge as a `moment of grace’.
Amazingly, Deavere then gets the audience to start singing Amazing Grace and the lines `that saved a wretch like me’ becomes the show’s final epitaph.
Not a cough, not a murmur throughout Deavere’s two hour (with interval) performance, to say she held the Royal Court audience spellbound would be an understatement. Notes From the Field, with bass player Marcus Shelby providing a quiet accompanying coda to Deavere’s accounts, collects together the grief, the horror, the unspeakable injustices, binds them together with love and urges each and every one of us to go on fighting.
`Get up’, urges the pastor at the funeral of Freddie Gray, a young black African-American beaten and murdered by Baltimore police, `get yourself up and change the city’. Ditto you could say, for the victims of Grenfell.
No defeatism here, only inspirational and a truly great force and spirit at work here. The conscience of a nation, Deavere offers up the starkest, most eloquent and humane warning to history.
Will we take heed?
Amazing grace, indeed.
Notes From the Field
Conceived, written and performed by Anna Deavere Smith
Directed by: Leonard Foglia
Music composed and performed by: Marcus Shelby
Costume Design: Ann Hould-Ward
Lighting Design: Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhauer
Video Design: Elaine J McCarthy
Sound Design: Leon Rothenberg
Text Supervisor/Onstage Assistant: Daniel Rattner
Movement Coach: Michael Leon Thomas
Stage Manager: Alexandra Hall
Associate Producer: Liz Ogilvie
Presented by LIFT and the Royal Court Theatre with support from Jordan Roth/Jujamcyn Theaters
Produced by the Anna Deavere Smith Pipeline Project
Notes From the Field first produced at the American Repertory Theater, MA; New York premiere produced by Second Stage Theatre, NY in 2016.
Additional workshops took place at the Philadelphia Theatre Company, Baltimore Center Stage and the Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
First perf of Notes From the Field at Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, London, June 13. Runs to June 23, 2018
Review published on this site, June 22, 2018