Anna Deavere Smith's 'Notes' Packs A Punch
Don’t let the throwaway title deceive you. In “Notes from the Field,” Anna Deavere Smith has created one of her most ambitious and powerful works on how matters of race continue to divide and enslave the nation. Ostensibly, the show is about the “school-to-prison pipeline” in low-income public education systems, but Smith’s scope is greater than a look inside classrooms. Here she finds connections to a failed justice system, police violence and even to the civil rights movement of the ’60s. All this — and a bravura performance — make for a stunning production.
In her most notable empathetic projects, “Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities” and “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,” Smith zeroes in on the people surrounding a particular incident and reveals, through verbatim re-creation of their words, the human dimensions that deepen the perspective to those tragedies. In this new production at Off Broadway’s Second Stage Theater, the broader connections take time to build in strength — and sometimes the story-telling strays — but Smith lays out a compelling case for the bigger picture.
Smith as Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, is the only one of the 17 characters depicted who makes two appearances in the show. She opens with a captivating analysis that grounds the play from the start, saying how problems of public education need a massive investment of will to right a historic wrong — and then later returns with a call for follow-through action.
But there’s plenty of passion, too. There’s Philadelphia high school principal Linda Wayman, who speaks of the significance of a proud mother’s “Thank you, Jesus” moment at her child’s graduation.