Entertainment » Theatre

Notes From the Field - Doing Time in Education

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Aug 26, 2016
Anna Deavere Smith in "Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education."
Anna Deavere Smith in "Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education."  (Source:Evgenia Eliseeva)

Anna Deavere Smith takes bits and pieces from a host of interviews to address the interlocking problems that face America's minority youths. In a kaleidoscopic show assembled from video projection, music (by composer / performer Marcus Shelby), audience participation (the entire second act is a discussion group!), and no fewer than 15 distinct impersonations, Smith creates a troubling overview of how the "school-to-prison pipeline" that feeds feeding black, Latino, and Native American youths to a prison for profit complex interfaces with, and is sustained by, racist policing and racist policies in education and the justice system. Along the way, Smith touches on related topics such as food deserts, the destruction of America's cities by white flight to the suburbs decades ago, and the ongoing civil rights struggles.

Not all of those issues can be addressed in depth; the show runs nearly three hours, but its intense, critical focus -- and its pinpoint moments of humor, shining out from such grim material -- are entirely, unceasingly engaging from start to finish. We hear from several people affected by the killing of Freddie Gray, a black man who by eyewitness accounts was roughed up so severely by the Baltimore police that he suffered fatal injuries -- all for having committed the de facto crime of looking a police officer in the eye. The man who took video of Gray being dragged away by a knot of police officers, screaming in pain and unable to walk, before he was dumped into a van -- and shortly afterwards shackled in leg irons -- offers his account; so does a protestor handed a steep sentence; and when a preacher takes to the pulpit to decry Gray's killing, the theater comes, briefly but memorably, a place of fellowship and shared suffering, the audience responding just as a congregation would.

Smith has an uncanny ability to appear before the audience as one character -- a hulking Native American convict, for instance -- before disappearing for the briefest of intervals, only to reappear as an entirely different character. Everything changes in that short span of time: Costume, accent, body language, affect. You can hear how Smith has studied the words of her interview subjects, but you also see that she's gone further than that, looking to understand nuances that come from conflicting emotions and lived experiences. When a school administrator describes how a bullied girl finally strikes back, it's with both the requisite disapproval of her profession and the honest glee of someone who sympathizes.

For all the problems Devere's interviewees describe, they also offer solutions. A judge rejects the idea that school children should be punished for acting out; what we need to do, she says -- and you believe her, because it sounds like nothing other than sense -- is to embrace those youths, find out what's troubling them, and offer them help and support instead of criminalizing them for their pain and hardship. When Smith takes the role of Congressman John Lewis, Democrat of Georgia and veteran of the Freedom Riders in the 1960s (a form of activism that led to severe beatings, one of which he suffered at the billy clubs of Alabama State Troopers), a moving message of forgiveness and atonement rises above the fray.

From the classrooms to the streets, from the glorious memories of Selma to shocking cellphone video that captures a school officer tossing a student around a classroom, here's the raw stuff of actual and urgent crisis. This is vital theater and muscular social conscience all in one fruitful evening. See it if you can.


"Notes From the Field: Doing Time in Education" runs through Sept. 17 at the Loeb Drama Center in Harvard Square. For tickets and more information, please go to http://americanrepertorytheater.org/events/show/notes-field-doing-time-education

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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