Anna Deavere Smith is an old hand at tackling complex issues in down-to-earth terms without reducing their complexity. In her early solo shows Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, she explored how long-simmering racial tensions exploded into riots in Brooklyn and Los Angeles in the early 1990s. The performer’s signature style of performing verbatim excerpts of her own interviews proved to be especially poignant in those documentary theater pieces as she embodied leaders, bystanders, activists and other figures on all sides of the divide talking about their experience of difference through the same face. The fact that Smith herself is a light-skinned African American woman only helped drive her points home.
Smith has continued to try to make sense of overwhelmingly complicated social issues by embodying contrasting perspectives in subsequent pieces such as Let Me Down Easy. This look at the thorny American health care system came to Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2011.
Smith’s new piece at Berkeley Rep carries the unwieldy title Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education, The California Chapter. It’s the latest stage of a work in progress about the school-to-prison pipeline for underserved youth–primarily of color–from impoverished communities in the United States. Although it’s a full-length drama, clocking in at two hours and 20 minutes, Smith is presenting it in an unfinished form.
The sections that are in place, however, appear polished. Smith humanizes her subjects by preserving their verbal tics, intonation and body language in a manner that’s sometimes amusing, and that serves to accentuate rather than undermine their credibility. These aren’t just disembodied points of view; these are real people with real lived experiences.
Smith becomes teachers, counselors, ex-cons, judges, activists, civic leaders and witnesses of police violence in segments skillfully woven together so that one speaker often seems to be using the last person’s testimony as a jumping-off point.