Check It Out: Anna Deavere Smith's
Notes From the Field

November 8, 2016 | Revolution Newspaper |


Millions watched the video of Freddie Gray being dragged off, legs limp and twisted, to a police van. But who has met Kevin Moore, the Baltimore deli worker who dared to tape this crime? Who's heard him tell the story with the image of Freddie Gray projected two stories high behind him, screaming in agony, almost impossible to listen to?

The uprising two days later in Baltimore was all over YouTube, but few have gotten to know Allen Bullock, the young Black man that authorities tried to put away for years for allegedly trashing a police car. Take a minute right now to watch Anna Deavere Smith bring Allen to an audience in a clip from her one-person play Notes From the Field.

Allen is one of 19 people Smith inhabits during this gripping show now playing at the Second Stage Theatre in New York through December 11. (It may travel to other cities and be broadcast on TV.) Smith interviewed some 250 youths, prisoners, parents, teachers, public officials, activists, and others for this play, which she calls a "living documentary."

A central focus is those this system casts off. She takes you inside their lives, with insight and empathy, no condescension. What choices has this system offered them? What future? Why did Freddie Gray make eye contact with the police? Why did he run?

Smith grew up in Baltimore; she returns as the city erupts, and for anyone in her audience who may have asked why these youth revolted, why so fierce, the reasons—visceral and very specific—are onstage. One more murder by police which can't be denied, piled onto lives filled with insult and predation by police. Allen: "The police, they don't care.... Four times, I think I remember four times they beat me, like four times, I think I remember four times, four times...."

Anna Deavere Smith has created 18 one-person shows based on interviews—including Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992—about uprisings in Brooklyn and in LA. She was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and is widely recognized for creating a new form of theater.

In Notes From the Field, she delves into the horrors of police terror, mass incarceration, and the intensifying oppression of Black and other oppressed people. "There's so much to learn about, how do you get an audience to change its position from the passive spectator?" she told the New York Times, "What causes an audience to really say, 'Well, what can I do about this?'"

Smith portrays various people who are trying to address these screaming outrages from within the framework of this system. There are parents, teachers, and school administrators trying to "save one kid at a time" through education. The president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund calls the problem one of investment—in prisons, not schools. The evening concludes with Democratic Party Congressman and former civil rights activist John Lewis telling of former adversaries—cops and Klan members—apologizing to him, holding out the hope of societal reconciliation. But reconciliation and reforms aren’t the answer.

The horrors that Anna Deavere Smith so movingly brings to the stage are woven into the fabric of this society, and can't be resolved by education, reconciliation, or other reforms within this system's framework. It is urgent that everyone confront these issues, and wrestle critically with where they spring from and what it would take to end them. Revolutionaries need to bring the scientific understanding of their real roots and the revolutionary solution needed to actually address them to performances and discussions of this important work.

So if you can, be sure to see Notes From the Field!


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