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Notes from the Field
Conceived, written and performed by Anna Deavere Smith
To June 23 at the Royal Court Theatre
Reviewed By Daniel M Byway
Theater has always been an important way to hold a mirror up to society, but Anna Deavere Smith’s latest project – Notes from the Field – offers one of the most powerful representations of American society and civil rights issues the London stage has ever seen.
For this project, Smith conducted over 250 interviews with individuals in the USA and Finland, compiling them into a series of episodes in which the voices and experiences of those individuals are not just relayed, but channeled through Smith herself. This is powerful stuff. In a world of ‘Fake News’ and competing political narratives, the authenticity and real world grounding of this style of theater is refreshingly honest, and all the more compelling as a result.
The people who Smith presents as part of Notes are from a variety of backgrounds. Some of the names you’ll recognize – such as NAACP Legal Defence Fund President Sherrilyn Ifill and Congressman John Lewis. Others you may have seen or heard about from the news. Some of the episodes focus on specific incidents in recent times, such as the story of Shakara, a 16 year old girl who was dragged from her classroom seat by a police officer in South Carolina, and Niya Kenny, who filmed the incident on her phone. The death of Freddie Gray in 2015 is a particularly poignant section of the production, and Smith’s performance as Jamal Harrison Bryant, the Pastor at Gray’s funeral, is one of Notes from the Field’s stand out moments.
This production represents Smith’s first appearance in London in 25 years, and in a recent interview with The Guardian, she suggested that the long absence had much to do with a sense that “I’ve thought maybe I’m just too American. I’m very aware of my mission in America, my place in America.” What stood out from the performance I attended though, was how engaged the audience was – at one point singing lines from 'Amazing Grace' as part of the production. The boundaries between nations on human issues like racism and civil rights have been gradually removed by global communication tools such as Twitter. The awareness in the UK of movements such as Black Lives Matter means that the content of Notes from the Field couldn’t be more relevant, and indeed important.
Smith’s capacity to inhabit these real people and convey their stories with a genuine sense of humanity is what gives this production its profundity, and there are few individuals better qualified than Smith to have delivered such a moving performance. If Smith’s mission is to make us think about the ongoing civil rights issues in America, then mission accomplished, and what a way to do it.
There are still seats (amazingly) to see this show before it finishes on Saturday June 23, and the performance on Wednesday June 20 will include a unique conversation between Anna Deavere Smith and Artistic Director of the Young Vic, Kwame Kwei-Armah. I'd highly recommend seeing this live whilst it's in London, but if you have HBO in the States, you can also watch a version of Notes from the Field which was broadcast on the channel in the USA - see https://www.hbo.com/movies/notes-from-the-field.