The title of Anna Deavere Smith’s phenomenally good solo show makes it sound dispassionate, or scientific. It’s not. Yes, ‘Notes from the Field’ is a devastatingly well researched takedown of America’s criminal justice system, and the centuries of injustice it’s built on, created out of more than 250 testimonies from the people it affects. But as Deavere Smith performs these stories, she becomes a shapeshifter, weighed down by a former inmate’s weathered resignation, or a young protester’s righteous fury. And she reverberates with the emotional weight of each life that’s been twisted out of shape.
Deavere Smith has made a solid name for herself in American telly with much-loved roles in shows such as ‘The West Wing’ and ‘Nurse Jackie’. But her more subversive parallel career as a social researcher and documentary theatre-maker has been simmering on since the early ’90s, when she made ‘Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992’ (recently revived at Notting Hill’s Gate Theatre), which exposed the tensions surrounding the LA riots.
‘Notes from the Field’ isn’t set around a single explosive event. Instead, it’s a slow, rumbling exposé of the systems and policies that come together to systematically criminalise and disenfranchise African American, Native American and Latino people. Put briefly: America has one of the largest prison systems in the world, and its influence spreads into schools, where students of colour are disproportionately criminalised for non-cooperative behaviour, as they struggle to thrive in communities that are dealing with the legacy of centuries of poverty and state-sanctioned violence.
Beneath the top-line theories are real, unwieldy human experiences. This stuff is complicated, as the elegant juxtapositions in Deavere Smith’s work show. One particularly jolting shift goes from the testimony of a prison psychiatrist, who’s got endless empathy for the men whose brains are, he theorises, shaped by trauma, to the blunt truths of a former inmate who’s got an unswerving belief in free will and the righteousness of the death penalty.
There’s something a bit miraculous about the way Deavere Smith can become a preacher so wildly charismatic you’re ready to get out of your seat and go change the world. Or an inmate with stories to make your blood freeze in your veins. Or, hilariously, a mother who employs a pair of noisily honking geese to stop her teenagers sneaking out at night.
Part of me rebelled against the massive video screen that Leonard Foglia’s production places behind her: in a way she doesn’t need it. But what the screen does is turn grainy footage, recorded on mobile phones by civilian activists, into something that’s vivid and cinematic, its huge emotional impact restored. One film shows a 14-year-old African American girl being violently wrestled to the ground by a cop that her teacher called on her. It has an unambiguous impact, an open wound in the middle of a performance that picks a careful, sure-footed path across treacherous ground.