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FringeReview UK 2018

Notes From the Field

Royal Court Theatre in Association with LIFT

Genre: Devised, New Writing, Political, Solo Performance, Theatre, Verbatim Theatre

Venue: Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs


Low Down

Notes From the Field written and performed by Anna Deavere Smith directed by Leonard Foglia is an envelope through which Smith filters testimony. Ann Hould Ward’s costumes are designed for swift changes. Marcus Shelby performs his own music with Leon Rothenberg’s discreet sound design; with lighting by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer. The video design of Elaine J McCarthy explodes on occasion. Till June 23rd.


This is extraordinary. And it’s getting slightly longer, which can only be welcome. Rarely have two and a half hours passed so swiftly without a drop in energy or temperature. Notes From the Field written and performed by Anna Deavere Smith is the most immediate but also most condensed set of narratives about racial oppression and sheer murder in the U. S. committed to an audience. As Smith strikes her first official’s pose (‘Bad Bets’) you might wonder how many light-changes and backdrops can vary her delivery.


How Smith, famous from The West Wing, manages the shift from liberal academic through two Native Americans to Latino on parole to Finish educator through black historian and pastor is just the most remarkable technique of the evening. It’s one supported by harrowing video projections, light changes, stage managers moving on different sofas and chairs in a seamless flurry of backdrops. Naturally though it’s only the casing of a lived experience shuddered out. Smith has lived through the tellings, ordered and selected the interviews she was privileged to receive; several are online.


The word Smith picks up and starts with so frequently is ‘broken’. This culminates in the ante-penultimate scene, but we’re exposed to ‘broken system’ much earlier.


Much of the brokenness centres on prison or deprived towns, counterpointed inevitably with a full brief of academic witness. Some like the Finnish, are partly taken because it’s as if the foreigner confronted with horrendous footage – the violence shown to a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl in class and her classmate who filmed it, makes her wonder if the U. S. is Mars. There’s several testimonies like this. You laugh uneasily because horror and hearer are interwoven. The incredulous should make us incredible. It’s our belief that’s dulled, particularly with U. S. history.


Notes From the Field, directed by Leonard Foglia is an envelope through which Smith filters testimony. It’s a necessarily swift production with an emphasis on rapid change in the first seventy minutes followed by slower tempi in the fewer, most telling testimonies in the second half lasting an hour.


Ann Hould Ward’s costumes are designed for swift changes though Smith’s often a beat ahead and we’re perfectly attuned to her dropping into overalls and jackets with stage managers’ help after she starts talking. Donning a Native American’s tangerine overall she growls as the backdrop projection shows an ironically unspoilt mountain range, where the reservation subsists.


This increasingly visible slipping-out becomes part of the ritual, as are bottles or sometimes glasses of water like a chat show. It’s seamless, latterly made more explicit: the lighting’s kept on and it becomes a feature of the show.


Marcus Shelby performs his own music with Leon Rothenberg’s discreet sound design; it’s fine underscoring, like the lighting by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer which illumines the bare brick walls in violet, blue, green; but just as frequently foregrounds lit interiors as the video design of Elaine J McCarthy explodes on occasion. This happens strategically, so infrequently – only word projections before the show and during the interval linger.


Video footage erupts at the beginning with the death and funeral of twenty-five-year-old Freddie Gray, state murdered in 2015 when his spine was 80% severed during his arrest. Another witness’s ambition was ironically to live to twenty-five. That’s Stockton, where Smith conducted several interviews, including with the mayor. Gray’s funeral occasions an extraordinary oration from Pastor Jamal Harrison Bryant: ‘He did something that black men are taught not to do: to look the police in the eye.’ Then they gave chase. Then Bryant adds: ‘He stopped because somewhere in the inner recesses he made up his mind: ‘I’m tired of living in a box.’ He makes of Gray’s death a kind of horrific sacrament.


This footage isn’t replicated till the second half: slapping down a fourteen-year-old girl in a bikini, or the aforementioned assault on a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl by a white policeman, literally flipping over her whole desk with her tumbled in it. And finally an affirmatory moment, with a young woman’s witness to taking down Alabama’s Confederate flag given a send-off by the footage playing. At that point the audience cheers. With this visceral performance we can do no other.


Smith carefully counterpoints the material so a dense relation sometimes replicated in a thick accent, follows or is followed by baffled rationality like the Finn Sari Muhonen, repeatedly admitting ‘we don’t have that in our country’ and wondering what crime a teenager might have committed to merit the violence. Her incomprehension at the motiveless malignity rendered in faintly comic terms – people laugh – is naturally chilling.


Apart from Bryant, the most telling are the last three, Smith selecting a crescendo of witness. Bryan Stevenson, against a backdrop of bottles of brightly coloured earths relates how each one was gathered from a lynching site. Stevenson’s erudite, and takes up the main theme of people ‘broken’. ‘I realised I was broken too.’ His measured unskeining opens the Civil Rights marches against the Jim Crow laws, the Charleston church massacres and his own experience where the pastor had to beg on his knees for polio shots to continue for black children after an incident with Stevenson’s mother.


Bree Newscome narrates that joyful comedic episode of skinning up a pole to take down the flag. So the stillness of Congressman John Lewis caps everything. After relating several commemorations of the 1965 Selma march it’s the moment of truth and reconciliation where others beg forgiveness that makes this peculiarly powerful. And at crucial point, there’s an invited audience participation.


Smith’s admits when interviewed there are experiences she finds particularly treasurable, with Native Americans. Not of course particular scenes. But what also makes this harrowing selection work beyond individual hammer-blows is how Smith varies, gradates and paces her interviews; and builds a climax. It renders the experience a memorial; it’s what such artistry’s for. You will experience nothing like this and leave reeling.