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Notes from the Field

Anna Deveare Smith
LIFT and Royal Court Theatre
Royal Court Theatre Downstairs

Anna Deveare Smith Credit: Joan Marcus
Anna Deveare Smith Credit: Joan Marcus
Anna Deveare Smith Credit: Joan Marcus

It is a privilege to see Anna Deveare Smith’s labour of love, which must represent months and quite probably years of work, culminating in a bravura solo performance that entrances viewers right through its 2½-hour running time.

On arrival in the auditorium, screens inform visitors that this contemporary testament to the evils of prejudice and disenfranchisement in the United States is based on no fewer than 250 interviews carried out by the multitalented Ms Deveare Smith in four different areas of the United States. In addition, a mass of pertinent statistics about difficulties faced by the country’s underclass, primarily those from minority groups, will shock.

Ignoring the writing and editing for a moment, Anna Deveare Smith is a consummate performer who effortlessly takes on and convinces as different characters, across racial and gender boundaries, demonstrating remarkable charisma, energy and enthusiasm for her subject and task.

In some ways, she is almost warming up in delivering the powerful views of a senior officer from NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), which sets the agenda for the remainder of a gripping evening, particularly by highlighting the fact that the United States has effectively reallocated funds previously earmarked for education and social services to criminal justice and the prison system.

In all, around 20 characters are portrayed and together they make up a rich tapestry of American life. Two of the stories related have such power that they could well have many audience members in tears.

The first relates to the late Freddie Gray, a young man of “color” from Baltimore, Maryland who was arrested by police on the street and didn’t make it back to their station alive. Views of this tragedy are put forward by a number of interested parties, in some ways the most powerful a videographer who filmed the arrest and had no doubts about what had happened in the back of the police van after the doors were closed. It almost goes without saying that none of the police officers involved was convicted of a criminal offence, although from the evidence provided it is hard to understand how a court could have cleared all of them.

This death is set in further context during the high point of the evening, a condemnatory speech delivered by a radical pastor only a couple of weeks after Gray’s death at his funeral service. In a fiery admonition to his flock, the preacher urges them to “get your black self up and change this city” ending his sermon on a rallying cry of “No Justice No Peace”. This is really rousing stuff and might explain why, at times, America has seemed like a powder keg waiting to explode. Sadly, it is not one-of-a-kind since half a dozen other similar but equally mysterious deaths closely connected to the police were cited.

In the days of the World Wide Web, almost any event can be filmed and instantly disseminated. The second case, which beggars belief, focuses on a teenaged girl at school in Columbia, South Carolina. In absolutely shocking images, projected on a large screen at the back of the stage, we were able to witness the youngster being dragged from her desk in class by a uniformed officer and thrown violently to the ground. This was the seed for a debate that crossed continents, involving eyewitnesses as well as educationalists.

Watching Notes from the Field can be a chastening experience but this wake-up call to the American nation and the world should be compulsory viewing for legislators, those charged with running police services and anybody with a heart.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher