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.
Costume and set changes are minimal. Occasionally Smith puts on a jacket to become someone new. But more often, the shift is pure body language. In director Leah C. Gardiner’s smooth staging, the stagehands seamlessly move chairs and tables to and fro between segments so that each interview has a different, albeit minimalist, setting.
This one isn’t quite a solo show: Bay Area jazz composer Marcus Shelby is onstage the whole time, accentuating key sections with somber musical accompaniment on double bass.
Smith is taking on a huge and multifaceted subject here. She talks about children traumatized at an early age who are just passed along from school to school to juvenile hall without addressing what leads them to act out in the first place. Her subjects describe the criminalization of everyday life for people of color, in which police can stop you on any pretext and can brutalize or kill you for “resisting arrest” even when there was no crime they could arrest you for in the first place.
Ultimately, though, this is all the same system, a result of the allocation of funds and resources to the criminal justice system instead of education and social services. Whole segments of the population are effectively written off as a loss before they even get started.
How can a system so mammoth and so fixed possibly be changed? Well, that’s where a bold experiment comes in. The whole second act of the show is "homework." The audience is split up into small groups assigned to different areas all over the theater grounds to participate in guided discussions with facilitators with dry-erase boards.
In our group, however, there really wasn’t any conversation. We were asked to blurt out phrases about what needed to happen and what a better future would look like, all of which were written down on the board. We were asked to write down a description of positive change and to state what we individually are prepared to commit to do to help change this sad state of affairs. Only a couple of people came forward, and it was to talk about things they were already doing. Other groups seemed slightly livelier, but the format didn’t seem to be designed for much back-and-forth discussion.
It was a frustrating experience to feel so impotent and disengaged in any solution to such entrenched systematic injustice. But making people uncomfortable may be part of the point. When we’re asked what we’re personally willing to do to change things, it’s embarrassing to come up empty. As a part of the theatrical experience, the brainstorming sessions seem awkward. But as a way of pursuing an issue further than just hearing about it for a couple of hours, it seems worth a try.
Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education, The California Chapter runs through August 2, 2015 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in Berkeley. For tickets and information visit berkeleyrep.org.