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Anna Deavere Smith boldly seeks justice in ‘Notes from the Field’

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Anna Deavere Smith portrays many characters, including Kevin Moore, videographer of the Freddie Gray beating, in the evocative “Notes from the Field” at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. (Courtesy kevinberne.com)

Anna Deavere Smith is back at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and that’s good news for anyone who’s worried about the American juvenile justice system.

No one transforms current issues into hard-hitting documentary theater like Smith, whose previous one-woman shows have included “Let Me Down Easy,” about health care, and “Twilight: Los Angeles,” about the Los Angeles race riots of 1992.

With “Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education, The California Chapter,” the great playwright-actress continues the tradition. Drawn from over 150 interviews with inmates, judges, teachers, principals, psychiatrists and juvenile justice experts throughout the U.S. – many of them in Smith’s native Baltimore – the show examines the school-to-prison pipeline that effectively sends black, Hispanic, and Native American youths into a dismal downward spiral.

It’s not quite accurate to call this a one-woman show: Smith is so adept at channeling the voices, inflections and unique characteristics of each interview subject, it’s as if they’re onstage. With the aid of a few props – a hat, a cane, a change of jacket or shoes – she transforms multiple voices into gripping theatrical roles.

There are flashes of humor, but most of the interviews range from wrenching to furious. The statistics are shocking – a high school principal says that 85 percent of penitentiary inmates were special education students. The director of Stanford’s Early Stress Research program quietly notes that PTSD transmits from one generation to the next.

Kevin Moore, who videotaped Freddy Gray’s death at the hands of Baltimore police, describes his camera as “the only weapon we have that’s legal.” A Philadelphia judge is haunted by the fate of a child who grew up in the system: “In my opinion,” he says, “society failed him.”

Deftly staged by Leah C. Gardiner, with film clips and a mournful original score played onstage by composer and double bassist Marcus Shelby, the show gathers the individual stories into a panoramic view of a broken system that condemns huge segments of the population to a marginalized underworld.

Smith is magnificent – with each role, she wants you to feel their pain, share their anguish, frustration, and outrage.

She doesn’t stop there. After the 80-minute first half, audience members are asked to assemble in groups to discuss avenues for change. On opening night, the 25-minute sessions appeared to yield lively interactions.

Smith and Shelby return for a brief coda, but by then, “Notes from the Field” has already accomplished its goal – to create an urgent plea for justice. Smith, quoting the influential American writer James Baldwin, reminds us: “We are responsible for the future of this world.”

Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education, The California Chapter
Presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Where: Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley
When: Most Tuesdays-Sundays; closes Aug. 2
Tickets: $25 to $89
Contact: (510) 647-2989, www.berkeleyrep.org

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