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Notes from the Field review at Royal Court, London – ‘a blistering performance’

Anna Deavere Smith in Notes from the Field at Royal Court, London

Anna Deavere Smith interviewed hundreds about the USA’s school-to-prison pipeline—the fact Latino, Native and African American people are vastly overrepresented in the US prison system, and incarceration has an almost direct correlation to if someone was expelled from school in their youth.

Made of up a series of monologues, the premise of Notes from the Field is simple, however the play itself is anything but. Smith’s blistering performance is nothing short of incredible. There’s something startling about how she embodies each person so fully; when she stands and laughs at the idea that she, a 300lb, 6 foot 4 inch man could be assaulted in prison, we believe her; when she hunches into the pose of a teenage girl worried about her mother’s reaction to her arrest, she morphs again.

Leonard Foglia’s crisp direction sees Smith retreating into the darkness for swift costume changes. She is usually alone, sometimes accompanied by stage hands who help her dress and move scant props, or a double bassist with whom she subtly interacts. The furniture shifts around her like tectonic plates. Each time Smith comes into the light and begins to speak it feels like a rebirth. The lighting works perfectly too, at one point falling across the stage to give the appearance of prison bars.

Elaine J McCarthy’s video design is particularly brilliant, with images projected onto the vast brick stage’s back wall. Some, like the lake on a Native reservation (also framed by Marcus Anthony Shelby’s beautiful live double bass soundscape) feel juxtaposed with the hidden pain of the person speaking. Other videos, like 17-year-old Shakara being flung across her classroom by a white male adult officer, leave the violence splayed for all to see.

A special touch is the cutting off of Baltimore District Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s famed speech where she indicts the six officers involved in Freddie Gray’s death. There’s a sense that hearing her words in full is pointless when the trial itself lead to mass acquittals; the system is rotten, even when it has a black female face.

In the play we hear from psychiatrists and ex-inmates, victims and parents. Each segment is titled, typically to give us something to listen out for in the accompanying character’s monologue. Sometimes they are used to devastating effect; when it becomes clear why one segment is titled Microwave, the audience recoiled as one.

If there is any critique to be made its perhaps that this one wonders how implicated a white British audience will feel in the play’s discussions of racism. The closing moments feel somewhat neat in their calls for forgiveness via Congressman and Civil Rights icon John Lewis, however the sole European character in Notes from the Field, a Finnish teacher, edges close to shining a lens back onto a Royal Court audience. Her inverted commas as she describes how the area has shifted from being “good, Finnish, and old” to more “Somalian” (sic) is an clever examination of dog whistle racism.

Emotionally exhausting but bolstered by the intellectual rigour of fact, Notes from the Field is a truly superb piece of theatre, one that tells the story of a true American tragedy.

 

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Verdict
A layered, clever examination of the US prison system, anchored by a blistering solo performance
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