Saturday, August 27, 2016

The A.R.T. Reaches A New Zenith of Audience Participation - Anna Deavere Smith in "Notes From The Field: Doing Time In Education"

From her first days as Artistic Director at the American Repertory Theater, it has been part of Diane Paulus' vision to innovate new ways for audiences to be intimately involved in the artistic process of whatever work was being developed and performed.  That vision reaches its apotheosis in the inaugural work that kicks off the A.R.T.'s 2016-2017 season: Anna Deavere Smith's "Notes From The Field: Doing Time In Education." This deeply moving work of art depicts the tragedy of the "School-to-Prison-Pipeline." This play, in three unique Acts, is built upon interviews that Ms. Smith conducted as she criss-crossed the country seeking to gain understanding of why the U.S. has the highest rate of incarceration of any developed nation. Her vision, which pairs beautifully with that of Ms. Paulus and the A.R.T., is to move audience members toward "empathic imagination and action."

The structure of this play begins with a "Radical Welcome" by leaders of the local Boston-Cambridge community, followed by Act I, which contains sixteen vignettes in which Ms. Smith channels the voice and ethos of each of the characters she interviewed. In these narrations, she weaves verbatim quotations from these women and men into moving monologues that capture that individual's role in, or perception of, some aspect of the "School-to-Prison-Pipeline." Then there is a 25-minute break for "Act II," in which audience members are assigned to discussion groups of 8-10 individuals.  During this period, each audience member is asked to reflect on what they have just seen and heard and felt, and to share with other members of their small group how they feel they are being moved to respond to their new found understanding of the "School-to-Prison-Pipeline" problem.  Then everyone reassemblies for a Coda performance by Ms. Smith - four additional vignettes that serve to inculcate some hope that the problems that have been depicted in Act I may not be completely intractable or unsolvable. PArticularly poignant was the final segment in which Congressman John Lewis recounts how a former Klan member visited the Congressman in his office.  The man came with his son. "I am one of the men who beat you when you were in Mississippi as a Freedom Rider.  I was to ask your forgiveness, brother!"

The overall effect of this play is stunning and deeply moving - moving one to tears at an emotional level and moving each individual to want to find a way to make a difference.

Underscoring Ms. Deavere's bravura performances is an original score by bassist Marcus Shelby. He draws on twin pillars of the blues - communication and empathy - to give a sense of triumph over tragedy as a continuing musical motif.  He and his bass viol often stand on the stage just to the side of Ms. Deavere. She frequently pauses, looks at him, engages in a "call and response" moment - with her eyes or with her voice - and then she continues, renewed and recharged.  In that sense. Mr. Shelby functions as Ms. Deavere's on stage muse.

Anna Deavere Smith and Marcus Shelby
in "Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education."
A.R.T. Through September 17th
Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva
The vignettes are drawn from conversations with individuals who are Black, Latino and Native American - groups most impacted by the "School-to-Prison-Pipeline." Some of the most memorable among Ms. Smith depictions of these individuals are two segments that involve Sherrilyn Ifill, President of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.  Ms. Ifill highlights the systemic nature of the problem, describing decisions that have been made about policy and investment. At the other end of the spectrum are the segments featuring Abby Abinanti, Chief Judge of the Yurok Tribe in California and Linda Wayman, high school Principal from Philadelphia.  In each case, these women highlight the importance of choosing to make a difference in one life - to care, to like, to love - at least one at-risk individual and by doing so, show them to way to ascend "A Staircase They Cannot See." Judge Abinanti was present for the opening night festivities, and added a humble and dignified reminder of the scope of Ms. Deavere's vision for stopping the hideous flow of lives through the Pipeline.

One of the most searing monologues came in the segment that recounts the death of Baltimore resident Freddie Gray, who died of a severed spinal cord at the hands of Baltimore police officers.  As Ms. Smith recreated the funeral oration given by Pastor Jamal-Harrison Bryant of Empowerment Temple AME Church. We were no longer in a theater, but we were in church, hearing how we needed to find a way to break out of the box. I was moved to tears.

The creative team that enables Ms. Smith to present these vignettes in such an effective way include a simple set of sliding panels, designed by Riccardo Hernandez, Costumes by Ann Hould-Ward, Lighting by Howell Binkley, Sound by Dan Moses Schreier and Projections by Elaine McCarthy. Tying all of these elements together with great care and precision is Director Leonard Foglia.

How impactful is this play? Well, my guest for the evening teaches in the Boston Public Schools. As we were reflecting, during the post-performance party, on what we had experienced, he said: "I have to find a way to get my colleagues to come and experience what I just experienced." At that moment, Diane Paulus approached us, and I was able to introduce her to Aaron.  I asked him to repeat to Diane what he had just said to me.  Diane immediately brought us to one of her staff members, who gave Aaron her contact information.  Within 24 hours, they had made arrangements for Aaron to bring up to 60 of his colleagues to see the show at a special educators' discount. I cannot wait to see how 60 transformed educators will lead to a cascading effect of more and more students being shown how to ascend that "staircase they cannot see."

I do not want to over-use the phrase "MUST SEE," but it applies to "Notes From The Field." The production will continue at the A.R.T. through September 17th.

A.R.T. Website

Enjoy - and be moved!


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