Anna Deavere Smith is Brilliant

Last Friday, with my wife Jean and several friends, I saw Anna Deavere Smith’s Notes From the Field at the 2nd Stage Theater in New York. It is heart-wrenching, infuriating, distressing, but also uplifting, as it digs deeply into our criminal injustice system and especially the school-to-prison pipeline.

I had seen Deavere Smith in person only once before, when she delivered the alumni-weekend sermon in the Stanford Chapel in October 2015. My wife and I were there because a good friend, who is also a good friend of Deavere Smith, invited us to the event. The sermon was remarkably thoughtful and beautifully delivered. She preached, though she is not a preacher, and she deepened the admiration I already had for her after seeing the film version of Fire in the Mirror, her powerful one-woman show about the Crown Heights riots of 1991. Notes From the Field, like that and several other earlier productions, is a social commentary based upon interviews she conducted with players in the issue she was tackling—interviews that become the script for a performance in which she plays all the parts. She becomes each person, male and female, young and old, white and black and Jewish and Latino. These changes involve simple but telling costume shifts, arresting stagecraft based upon projected photographs and videos, and the poised, commanding on-stage presence of composer and bass player Marcus Shelby. But most of all they involve Deavere Smith’s compelling impersonations, as she takes on the dialect and cadence of each individual. No um, er, or redundancy from the interviews is eliminated. The genuine sense of each personality is beautifully conveyed. She transforms herself and, with reverence for the uniqueness of each person, she conveys tremendous understanding and compassion. No one is mocked. Everyone is heard.

For the audience to hear so much, Deavere Smith has, quite obviously, conducted her interviews with a tremendous willingness to hear each person’s testimony herself. She has drawn people and let them speak. In Notes From the Field, she captures the voices of those accustomed to public speaking, like Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP and Jamal Harrison Bryant, Pastor of the Empowerment Temple AME Church in Baltimore, where he delivered the eulogy for Freddie Gray, whose spine was fatally snapped while he was arrested, shackled and, without any seatbelt, bounced around town in a paddy wagon. Ifill speaks precisely and thoughtfully while also being searingly articulate about racial and class inequities. Bryant raises the roof, enraging our spirits and evoking our tears. (He deserved a much better Amen corner than we supplied on December 2nd.)

But Deavere Smith also captures the voices of those who are not used to microphones, podiums, or altars. There is Allen Bullock, who joined the protests that followed Freddy Gray’s death and who knows the streets and speaks with a blend of despair, fatalism, and commitment to justice. There is Taos Proctor, a Yurock fisherman who interrupts the story of his jailhouse years with odd guffaws and erratic pauses. There is the hilarious Leticia De Santiago who explains how she raised upright kids in a downtrodden city. There is the hushed voice of Denise Dodson, who, on the eve of her parole, insists there was justice in imprisoning her for twenty-three years for being present when her boyfriend killed the man who had attempted to rape her.

And there is Congressman John Lewis, who speaks of reconciliation and forgiveness. If I wondered how well Deavere Smith takes on voices never known to the public, all doubts were dispelled when I heard how exactly she captures Lewis’s voice, its mixture of deep drawl, slow pace, and tender inflections.

The blending of these and several other voices left last Friday’s audience emotionally drained yet also inspired, stunned almost to silence yet also leaping to our feet. I’m sure that the show preaches to a choir of New Yorkers already eager—in these days of Trumpian pettiness, bigotry, and self-indulgence—for a countervailing force. If someone came to 2nd Stage with doubts that Black Lives Matter—like those of American Indians and Latinos (and, yes, everyone else)—I hope those doubts were not merely diminished but totally washed away by the torrent of Deavere Smith’s passionate commitment, open mind, and equally open heart.

If travel, the season, and the $107 ticket price don’t make it impossible, get to the theater. There is not a bad seat in the house. There are some tickets still available, at least on weeknights, but the show closes on December 18th.

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