Theater Review: NOTES FROM THE FIELD (ZACH Theatre | Kleberg Stage in Austin, TX)

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by Tony Frankel on March 27, 2019

in Theater-Regional


Now on the Kleberg Stage in Austin, TX, Anna Deavere Smith’s powerful, engrossing and resonant solo play — Notes from the Field — has been updated for four actors by ZACH’s Producing Artistic Director David Steakley. As always, Ms. Smith has crafted a series of first-person portrayals culled from hundreds of her own interviews that is at once scary, funny and life-affirming. Strangely unproduced since its 2016 Off-Broadway outing, it’s still understandable given that part of the thrill has always been watching her morph characters like switching a hat. Here, Michelle Alexander, Zell Miller III, Carla Nickerson, and Kriston Woodreaux embody three to five roles each, and the result is just as stunning — if not more so — than watching Ms. Smith.

Our racially contentious nation has always been part of Smith’s oeuvre, regardless of the subject: Health Care and death in Let Me Down Easy and riots in both L.A. (Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992) and Crown Heights (Fires in the Mirror), which was part of a series called On the Road: A Search for the American Character. The subject this time is the “school-to-prison pipeline,” a conduit that keeps minority kids from any outcome except incarceration. It’s driven by a fatal fusion of endless and pointless discipline, inadequate encouragement, no alternatives to crime, and self-fulfilling and low expectations of failure. What is going on in our country when five-year-olds are being handcuffed for throwing tantrums and older kids are arrested for mischievous pranks? What happened to sending these kids to a principal or guidance counselor? Is there a way to keep our youth from becoming doomed drop-outs and getting sucked into the pipeline?

In trying to understand the plight of these children, Smith uses her trademark “documentary theater” that she invented decades ago. With Stephanie Busing’s searing imagery — such as the Ferguson and Baltimore police scandals — projected behind the minimal setting, you’ll hear from just under 20 souls who will take familiar news stories that we have become inured to, and transfer our numbness into an urgent call for action.

Smith’s work always inspires meaningful talks with friends and family, but here the two-act is gently interrupted for “facilitator-lead audience breakout discussions,” something I’ve not seen at one of Ms. Smith’s performances. While it’s clearly non-mandatory, I encourage you to join — it doesn’t detract from the emotional experience but rather enhances it. Besides, how else will we move forward until we turn off the TV and get things done face to face?

With Steakley’s pile-driving yet tender direction and the four shape-shifting, sterling thespians (amazing, actually), we see embattled characters from all sides — without judgment and from the inside out. By the end, a ton of love and light gets shown on a harsh, seemingly unforgiving and closed world. Even as you may be infuriated by our festering social ills, this highly recommended drama beautifully opens up a beacon of hope.

photos by Kirk Tuck

Notes from the Field
ZACH Theatre | Kleberg Stage
202 S Lamar Blvd in Austin, TX
Wed–Fri at 7:30; Sat at 2:30 and 7:30; Sun at 2:30
ends on March 31, 2019
for tickets, call 512.476.0541 or visit ZACH Theatre

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