Anna Deavere Smith literally steps into another pair of shoes to channel one of her many real life characters onto the stage. Sometimes she remains barefoot, and sometimes she surreptitiously adds small garments to suggest archetypes – such as a cloak for a pastor or a hoodie for a street protester. Throughout most of the first half of this show she also wears brocade trousers with sewn on patches down the front of her legs. The patches, made of the same material as the trousers, are quite conspicuous, almost ornamental. This approach to costuming choices (designed by Ann Hould-Ward) acts as a kind of metaphor for the author’s methodological approach too – dynamic, versatile, exact, raw and stylistically detailed.
It’s just over 25 years since Anna Deavere Smith invented a way of making performance that ushered in a wave of verbatim and documentary theatre around and beyond the English-speaking world. Her pieces Fires in the Mirror and its sequel Twilight: Los Angeles 1992, both prompted by racial riots in New York and LA respectively, took a multi-perspective approach to these complex events involving viewpoints of various officials, the judiciary and the police as well as the rioters and the relatives of the victims at the centre of each case. Both of these works have received multiple accolades and awards and Twilight has been named one of the best plays of the last 25 years by the New York Times.
Like the title of her latest piece suggests, Anna Deavere Smith’s work is often ethnographic in its nature and based on substantial research conducted over an extended period of time. Notes from the Field forms part of a larger project by the author, known as the Pipeline Project, in which the aim is to investigate the so called ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ – the link between formal education and incarceration – afflicting America’s racial minorities in particular.
The two hours of performance material, edited down from over 250 interviews, are organised in a five act structure focusing on a combination of case studies and thematic segments. The case of Freddie Gray who in 2015 died in police custody in Baltimore opens the evening; we then travel across America meeting various individuals relevant to the project until, half-way through, we settle again on Shakara, a school-girl from Columbia, whose mistreatment in the hands of a policeman, in her own classroom at Spring Valley High School, was caught on a phone camera and subsequently went viral. The final sections of the piece focus on the broader themes of trauma and hope.
There are 17 monologues in this final version of Notes from the Field, accompanied live at times by the double bass player Marcus Shelby and his warming smiles. Earlier versions of the piece featured an attempt to stage audience discussion on some of the central themes following the interval. The participation element of the current version is contained in a short and rather powerful moment in the show’s finale in which [spoiler alert] the audience is inspired and maybe even tricked into singing together. The song is one which works even if, and particularly if, sang below one’s breath [Amazing Grace], so the ask is really modest especially in the context where we are in the author’s debt in terms of the amount of hard work and harrowing insight we have witnessed up until that point in time.
Notes from the Field is certainly a test of stamina for both the performer and the audience, even though Smith’s virtuosic artistry provides much to be admired throughout the evening as a whole. Her approach, distinguished by an extraordinary skill of mimicry, is also characterised by certain discrete and judicious exaggerations – a kind of framing of the idiolectic detail found in her interlocutors which reveals deeper layers of meaning than those ordinarily available in the real life encounter. Hesitations, false starts, speech cadences and moments of laughter are performed as if part of a music score to reveal the emotional state of the speaker, or specific regional or cultural accents are exaggerated for added effect. This is a method already familiar to us from much of the rest of verbatim theatre we have seen over the years, however, in the case of Smith’s distinctive approach, we really see these technical workings as if for the first time.
There is also a real literary or more specifically oratory beauty in many of the conveyed testimonies. ‘The camera is the only weapon that we have’, ‘we can’t wait for the leaders to make it better’, ‘I don’t know how you can be black in America and be silent’ are just some of the introductory aphorisms ringing in the audience’s ears long after the show is over. Some epitomise the form of the show itself – ‘I always talk in stories because I think it illustrates points’, some are potent (self)-indictments ‘I think we judges fell asleep at the job’; some – like the entire testimony of former lawyer Bryan Stevenson – get to the real heart of the profound poetics of real life that this specific method illuminates: ‘the broken among us teach us to be human’.
Though we might be lacking the rousing sense of novelty that Smith’s early works must have engendered, Notes from the Field carries instead the authority of an expertly constructed piece of theatre that quite deservedly gets the audience up to its feet in the end. It’s not solely and entirely an ovation that comes from the gut, but it is infectious, and certainly part of the testament to Smith’s own brand of magic.
Notes from the Field is on until 23 June 2018 at the Royal Court. Click here for more details.