You may never have heard of her, but Anna Deavere Smith is kind of a big deal in the US. The writer and sole performer – well, there’s a cellist, too – of this new play at the Royal Court, she travelled the United States doing interviews, then condensed them down into plays in which she acts out the interviewees’ testimony verbatim.
For her efforts, she’s received the prestigious MacArthur Award, two Tony nominations and she was the runner up for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. President Obama even bestowed a Smith National Humanities Medal on her in 2013. Politicos might know her from TV’s The West Wing or as a professor at NYU.
Her background is important because it goes some way to explaining her distinctive theatrical style, which is part wandering academic, part mimic. With only a few stage hands to pass her props – a hat here, a coat there – she re-enacts 17 interviews from the 250 she conducted across four regions of the US.
Smith even assumes the role of preacher, so we have front row seats at Gray’s funeral, leading the stubbornly British audience into a tentative rendition of Amazing Grace
Split into five chapters, each one is a puzzle piece that forms a larger picture of how the education system is failing young people of colour – there are native American voices here, as well as Latinos and African Americans – and ensnares them into the prison system before their lives have even begun.
The alternative for many, it seems, is death at the hands of the police. Real, violent video complements Smith’s dramatic delivery. She reels you in with her characterful impersonations – many of which are brimming with gee whiz spunk and endearing stutters – then sucker punches you with footage of a 25-year-old Freddie Gray being pushed into a police car with a practically severed spinal cord or Shakara Gray, a high school student turned upside while still in her classroom chair, then hurled across a room by law enforcement officials.
Smith even assumes the role of preacher, so we have front row seats at Gray’s funeral, leading the stubbornly British audience into a tentative rendition of Amazing Grace.
But this isn’t a burdensome evening of theatre; it’s filled with tales of hope and heroism and even humour. Mostly, you leave in total awe of Smith. Of her incredible memory and recall, of her vocal dexterity and the sheer amount of research she must have done. In the end, Notes From the Field is a tremendous exercise in empathy and compassion, something we could all do with a little more of right now.