An enthusiastic, diverse audience packed the seats at Berkeley Repertory Theater in Berkeley, CA, on July 10 for a rehearsal of Anna Deveare Smith’s new play, “Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education.” Smith is known for seamlessly impersonating different characters from real life to spin a theme, often one that advocates for social change. This time, she stepped onto the stage – bare except for a few chairs, a sofa, and a podium — with a lone bassist (Marcus Shelby) playing off to one side. Three overhead screens identified her as Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP.
“In this moment is a space when change can happen,” Ifill said. Ifill went on to trace the history of public education and its loss of funding since racial segregation of public schools was ruled unconstitutional the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954. Many public schools in the South closed rather than integrate their student population.
Smith went on to literally fill the shoes (she changed shoes for each character) of judges, professors, former prisoners, a high school principal, a teacher, a therapist, and the friend of Freddie Gray who shot the video of his brutal treatment by police during his arrest. The stories these people told took place mostly in Philadelphia and Baltimore, which is Smith’s home base. About a third of the stories are based on interviews with people in California — including Stockton, Oakland, Stanford, Los Angeles, and two members of the Yurok tribe — Taos Proctor and Judge Abby Abinanti — in Klamath.
The most poignant character for me was a novice elementary school teacher in Philadelphia, who realized that many of her students fell into the special ed category because they had special needs. One day, one of her 10-year old students started on a rampage, running down the hallways and tearing everything off the walls. She ran after him as he screamed and ravaged everything in sight. Finally, she caught him and held him so tightly with both arms around him, he couldn’t move. She realized at that moment that her hold was really a hug, and the boy started to sob uncontrollably. That’s when we, the audience, realized the child – and all children – need love, not punishment.
A major theme of this unconventional play was that by punishing children and banishing them from school, we feed the school-to-prison pipeline because the children have nowhere else to go. And in fact, prison becomes another home to them; it’s a place that provides shelter, food, and a meeting place for many of their friends. It’s also a dangerous place and one that continues to dehumanize people, who were – as Smith demonstrates by screening the photo of a beautiful child now turned a tattooed prisoner – once innocent children like us all.
During the second “act,” the audience was broken down into groups of 25 to 30 people, who met at scattered locations throughout the theater, the lobby, and the outside courtyard. A facilitator handed out notebooks and a pen to everyone and asked us what it means to be human. As we responded, she wrote down our comments on a white tablet: to care, to create, to empathize, to encourage. At the end of the 25-minute sessions, we were asked to write down something each of us would commit to doing to humanize our society.
When we returned to the theater, Smith did a final monologue as her original character, Ifill. Once again she exclaimed, “This is it! In this moment is a space when change can happen.
“The moment when we move is the moment when we have to confront ourselves.”
And this time, we walked out of the theater emotionally driven and committed to the playwright’s call for creating a more humane society for all.
The play runs through August 2.