Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Notes from the Field *** B-

Anna Deavere Smith’s latest foray into “first person documentary storytelling,” now at Second Stage Theatre, is about the failure of our education and criminal justice systems, which have created a school-to-prison pipeline for youth from poor communities. As she did so memorably in “Fires in the Mirror” and “Twilight: Los Angeles,” she impersonates a diverse array of people related to an event or social problem and brings us their own words verbatim. Before the evening begins, a grim series of statistics about racial inequities in our schools and so-called justice system is projected on six large panels, putting me in a funk before Ms. Smith even reached the stage. The 18 scenes of excerpts from interviews and speeches that followed were intercut with photographs and video clips of some of the most egregious examples of racial bias in recent years. Some of the moments were painful to relive. Much attention is devoted to the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. The sermon at Gray’s funeral is one of the most powerful sections of the evening. Stockton and Klamath, CA and Columbia, SC are the locales of some other important pieces. Although there is an attempt to shed a ray of hope at the end of the evening, I did not find it convincing or comforting. The scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez and projections by Elaine McCarthy are effective. Some of Ann Hould-Ward’s costume choices are peculiar: I have no idea why Smith’s slacks in the first act had worn-through patches or why she was barefoot. For some stretches of the evening, bassist Marcus Shelby is onstage with Ms. Smith, to little effect. Some of the dialects and intonations came across as artificial: I have never heard anyone say “impurr” instead of “impair.” The material lacked a clear arc and some of the excerpts should have been trimmed. Leonard Foglia directed. While most of the audience responded enthusiastically, several people near me did not return after intermission. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes including intermission.

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