Most of us have a list of artists, writers and musicians who have touched us so consistently that we are ever ready to reach out to each new work that emerges. Once ensconced in my personal hall of fame, my list of carefully chosen creatives are my personal canonicals. I show up for everything they do.
Anna Deavere Smith has been one of my canonicals for a long time. Seeing her perform Fires in the Mirror in the early 90s was a revelation. Smith’s extraordinary insight is that language changes when it is spoken, verbatim, by someone else. She exposes complex meta narratives that live below the surface of the words we choose to use. And when they are set apart, out of their native habitat, the multidimensionality is more easily deciphered.
Why this works still baffles me, but Smith has consistently demonstrated the scope of this discovery. By applying this approach to highly charged social issues, her performances are some of the most powerful contemporary examples of art engaging the political. She does this without getting tangled in the wonkiness of political action or dropping into the tiresome cliches of 24/7 news reportage.
Her latest work is Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education, now at American Rep in Cambridge. Once again she unpacks some of the most unpleasant realities of American life, ones we would rather not face—racism, inequality, educational failure, the school-to-prison pipeline, poverty, the tragic waste of human lives. In this extraordinary telling, these issues are exposed as a complex nest of interrelated problems. You can’t fix just one.
As painful and sorrow-filled as these topics are, Smith is not going to let anyone slip into passive detachment. Using her finely tuned vignettes, she brings a variety of viewpoints to bear on these topics: bureaucrats, law enforcement and prison professionals, educators, psychologists, students, policy experts, politicians, parents, cons and ex-cons. (Her performance of the pastor Jamal Bryant‘s eulogy for Freddie Gray will live on in my mind for the rest of my life.)
Wisdom abounds in the people Smith captures in her vignettes. Here’s a taste of the strong voice of Sherrilyn Ifill who heads up the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, from an interview with Smith in the Los Angeles Times:
“We’ve been spending enormous money on the back-end of the problem,” [Smith] said. “You know how much it costs to have a person incarcerated? Sherrilyn Ifill says it’s not that we’ve stopped investing in mental health resources, but that we’ve been doing it in prisons. The most eloquent people are saying these resources need to be put on the front end, so that interventions can be made in communities of poverty.
“It’s not going to be cheap, but why not spend some of the money earlier?” she asked. “Because, remember, for a long time before these people were in prison they were doing things that were not productive for society.”
Smith is a consummate performer with a highly developed sense of how theater moves us. The minimal yet sophisticated staging along with the presence and soundings of bassist Marcus Shelby speak to her pitch perfect professionalism. But the material is still tough. As Smith has said, “Because I’m a dramatist, I like moments when there’s something unsettled. I’m in this business of looking at conflict. Conflict is never absent.”
I was so moved by this work even though I do have an issue with the overall design of Doing Time. Smith’s passion is authentic and palpable, and I believe it is that verve in her that led her to make a bold decision: After the first half, the audience is broken into assigned discussion groups where theatergoers are encouraged to enter into conversation about these issues. Before we broke into groups, Smith told us she wants the audience to take an active role in these narratives. She also referenced the call and response format that is used so frequently in the collective African American culture.
The intention is honorable, but the implementation fell short. This approach might work in a less professional setting, like community theater. But Smith is so luminously spectacular at bringing these themes into form that the stark transition into awkward groups of strangers forced to interact with each other felt almost punitive. Unfortunately it also strangled the carefully crafted throughline that Smith established in the first half. While the audience was reassembled for a “coda” performance by Smith that included lynchpin vignettes from wise elders like James Baldwin and John Lewis inter alia, the essential energy of the night was concentrated unforgettably in the those first 90 minutes.
It is the raw power of that first half that has me telling everyone they must see this production. Even with a disrupted delivery format, this is Anna Deavere Smith at her most memorable. These are the social issues right in front of us, the ones we must solve now. This nest of issues, along with climate change, should be at the forefront of every debate and stump speech during an election season. That they are not speaks to the primacy of Smith’s project.
The Doing Time experience is available at the American Reperatory Theater through September 17.