Just listen, if you would, to how she listens. That may sound like an odd way to invoke what Anna Deavere Smith does in “Notes From the Field,” her wonderfully energizing new performance piece about the cursed intersection of two American institutions, the school and the prison, in a racially divided nation. After all, Ms. Smith talks practically nonstop in the show, which is currently playing at Second Stage Theater.
But Ms. Smith speaking is, implicitly, Ms. Smith listening, paying scrupulous attention to the varied people she embodies with such precision. Though her command of different voices is what’s most obviously dazzling in theatrical terms, that mimetic talent wouldn’t count for much if it didn’t make us share the intent focus she brings to her subjects.
In “Notes From the Field,” which has been astutely directed by Leonard Foglia, Ms. Smith assumes the identities of 19 individuals. They appear separately to ruminate and ramble on topics that have made devastating headlines in recent years, including the 2015 death of Freddie Gray at the hands of Baltimore police officers and the slaughter of African-American churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., that same year.
You have probably already read (or watched) a lot of news and editorial accounts of such matters. But seeing Ms. Smith render others’ takes on these events and the culture that spawned them, you experience them with a fresh urgency that feels almost firsthand. The American theater’s most dynamic and sophisticated oral historian, Ms. Smith has personally interviewed many of the people we meet here: politicians and protesters, schoolteachers and prisoners.
But even when what she’s saying is taken from recorded public appearances, she recreates her speakers’ inflections and rhythms with an exactitude that comes only with hard study. Certain words leap out and sear: “har-RASS,” as pronounced by a protester from Baltimore, Ms. Smith’s hometown, when discussing street life in the shadow of the police; “barbaric” (pronounced, softly, “bah-BAHR-ic”), from an incarcerated Maryland mother, describing everything she wants her children not to be; the harshly aspirated “box,” by a pastor eulogizing Mr. Gray, summing up the captivity into which so many black men feel they are born.
We become vividly aware of nuances of phrasing and tone that we would be unlikely to catch if we were watching the same people on television. (Amy Stoller is her dialect coach.) And with our newly sensitized ears, we start to detect patterns and echoes within the separately spoken soliloquies. A conversation has been started.
She creates a dialogue out of monologues among souls who, in real life, might never have occasion to speak to one another
That’s what makes Ms. Smith so invaluable. She creates a dialogue out of monologues among souls who, in real life, might never have occasion to speak to one another. And with an expert technical team — which includes Riccardo Hernandez (set), Howell Binkley (lighting) and Elaine McCarthy (projections) — and the eloquently understated musician and composer Marcus Shelby, who provides a gentle accompaniment on a bass violin, Ms. Smith draws us into an ever-mutating, ever-expanding discussion.
What the discrete people she brings to life here have in common is an awareness of the existential trap into which ethnic minorities fall in this country, often irretrievably. “Notes” is a part of Ms. Smith’s “Pipeline Project,” an investigation of what feels like a direct route between school and jail for underprivileged students.
The show begins with Ms. Smith as Sherrilyn Ifill, the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who provides a droll and sobering overview.
“It is impossible to talk about the criminal justice system, mass incarceration, without talking about education,” Ms. Ifill says with the bulleted emphases of a practiced public speaker. Boldly, the scene shifts to projected news footage of the beating of Mr. Gray in Baltimore, and we hear a splenetic account of that event from Ms. Smith as Kevin Moore, a deli worker who captured the chaotic arrest on video with his phone.
For the rest of this absorbing, two-act production, we find ourselves connecting the dots between academic theories — from a psychiatrist, a judge, a mayor candidate — and the messy immediacy experienced by those who have been among the war zones of the streets and the schools.
Ms. Smith, the American theater’s most dynamic and sophisticated oral historian, interviewed many of the people she brings to life in “Notes From the Field.” Credit Tina Fineberg for The New York Times
Not that these categories are mutually exclusive. That’s especially evident in the accounts of those who have worked in urban school systems, trying to maintain order and, just possibly, inspire a sense of hope among students who feel defeated from the day they arrive.
Some of these rule-enforcers are harshly pragmatic, like the former penitentiary worker now employed as a “student concerns specialist” in a Charleston high school. Others, like an “emotional support teacher” in Philadelphia, are so personally invested that you can feel their bodies contorting, as if in sense memory of a struggle that never ends.
Denise Dodson, the Maryland prisoner, suggests what might be the template for “Notes” when she says of her life before her incarceration: “I guess I can say that I just wasn’t connecting to everything, because I wasn’t given enough information to know that we all are connected somehow. To every living breathing thing.”
Her tentative manner is in vital contrast to the assured, rolling cadences of the pastor at Mr. Gray’s funeral, or to the fiery, spluttering rage of a man who was arrested during protests in Baltimore.
That you don’t feel despair at the end of “Notes” is partly because of the vibrancy of Ms. Smith’s bearing witness to characters bearing witness. (The role of cellphone cameras as a form of testifying emerges with compelling clarity.) It’s also true that Ms. Smith chooses to end her evening with two guaranteed stories of uplift.
“Notes” doesn’t have the bracing, abrasive, journalistic vigor of the two great performance pieces about urban riots that made Ms. Smith’s name — “Fires in the Mirror” and “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992.” Ms. Smith is some 20 years older now than she was then, and her style would seem to be less confrontational and more conciliatory. She wants to leave us with a spark of hope here, and I’m grateful for that. It seems to safe to say, though, that she also wants us to leave angry, and restless, and aware that the conversation being conducted isn’t anywhere near completion.