Review - Anna Deavere Smith's Notes from the Field at the Royal Court
The American actor, writer and activist Anna Deavere Smith has been honing her tightly-controlled skills as a theatrical documentary maker for over 35 years now, and it’s both a thrill and a privilege to see her bring her latest show, Notes From the Field, to the Royal Court for a short season as part of this year's London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT). But it's also something more: a chastening and important work about the criminal justice system in America, and how it disadvantages, in particular, poor black kids.
It turns out, from an interview that she gave to Entertainment Weekly, that it was inspired by a conversation she had on a set with Eve Best (most recently in the West End in Wilde's A Woman of No Importance): "I was in Nurse Jackie and there’s this great British actress in the show with us, Emily "Eve" Best, and we were in hair and makeup. I said, 'I just can’t get this story out of my mind about this boy who peed in a water cooler and they were going to send him to jail.' Emily said in that fabulous Oxford-trained British accent, 'Oh, well whatever happened to mischief?' That was it for me. I was like, 'Okay, this is how I’m spending the next couple years of my life.' Because that’s right: Rich kids get mischief, poor kids get pathologised and incarcerated."
The show, originally produced by the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, MA in 2016 before transferring to Off-Broadway's Second Stage, marks the first time Smith has appeared in London for over 25 years, since her 1992 show Fires in the Mirror, documenting the Crown Heights race riots in Brooklyn, also came to the Royal Court. In another interview prior to her London return, she admitted to The Guardian, "Maybe it’s a dangerous thing to say, I haven’t been all that excited about going back to London. I just didn’t feel they [the British audience] were there with me."
She needn't have worried. This time, at least, we are held rapt by the frequently appalling but eventually deeply healing story she has to tell - and the astonishing stage craft and sheer storytelling skills with which commands our attention.
Compiled from over 250 interviews she conducted as part of her research, this is no one-woman show but in fact a nearly 20-person show, as she brings some of the people she met and their stories to impressionistic, detailed life.
That cast list includes congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis, and Bree Newsome, an activist who was arrested for removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House grounds. The latter is accompanied by actual video of the event; as is the brutal removal of a young black student from her class by a white policeman that had been summonsed to deal with her apparent insubordination.
These are just a few of the stories in a vast canvas of inequality and injustice that Smith unfolds for us; she brings a studied calm to her telling of it, as we supply the rage ourselves.
It is staged by director Leonard Foglia with a searing simplicity, as stage managers discreetly appear to change the simple sets and offer Smith different props and costumes, and Marcus Shelby provides musical accompaniment.
Notes from the Field is at the Royal Court until 23rd June.
Photo credit Joan Marcus