Zach Theatre's Notes From the Field

This production of Anna Deavere Smith's provocative docudrama calls out America's criminal justice system


Michelle Alexander as inmate Denise Dodson in Zach's Notes From the Field (Photo by Kirk Tuck)

In this era of fake news, serious theatre artists are making sure there is an element of authenticity in their storytelling. Documentary dramas, which merge journalistic principles with dramatic theatricality, are sharing the stage with more escapist fare. And verbatim plays, culled from interviews and archival material, serve to recognize dysfunctional forces at work, inform the conversation about them, and help change the system that created them.

Leading the charge in this arena is playwright/actor Anna Deavere Smith. Her critically acclaimed reality-based plays have addressed the national debate on health care (Let Me Down Easy), examined the Crown Heights riots (Fires in the Mirror), and exposed the tensions surrounding the L.A. riots (Twilight: Los Angeles 1992). Her Notes From the Field – which is receiving its regional premiere at Zach Theatre under Artistic Director Dave Steakley's velvet-gloved direction – calls out America's criminal justice system and the centuries of injustice it's built upon.

The play, which The New York Times named among the Best Theater of 2016 when it appeared off-Broadway, was inspired by devastating U.S. government reports that tell of how poor African-American, Native American, and Latinx children have been suspended and expelled from school more frequently than their middle-class white counterparts. In short, they have been systematically criminalized and disenfranchised. For Notes From the Field, Smith interviewed more than 250 people touched by this injustice to generate a condensed collection of open-wound monologues that tell their stories.

Among the 16 portrayed storytellers is Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who provides a sobering overview of the "school-to-prison pipeline." The Rev. Jamal-Harrison Bryant, who spoke at the 2015 funeral of a young man who died at the hands of Baltimore police officers, sermonizes. We meet Niya Kenny, a student at Spring Valley High School in South Carolina, who was arrested for standing up for a classmate who was viciously body slammed by the school's white resource officer.

Taken together, these voices bear witness to a great wrong and inspire us with their accounts of perseverance, resistance, and slow but steady progress.

Although the play was conceived as a one-woman show for Smith, the performance on the intimate Kleberg Stage features four actors who divide the workload: Michelle Alexander, Carla Nickerson, Kriston Woodreaux, and Zell Miller III.

What is lost in this adaptation is the opportunity to witness a master class in solo performance. But what is gained is a greater sense of continuity among the monologues, since there are no longer breaks in the action for Smith's costume changes. The transitions are so seamless that they create the illusion of dialogue among the monologists, where individuals who in life never had occasion to speak to one another are at least in the same room. And there is immense power in that.

The power is amplified by absolutely brilliant performances by every member of this cast. Their emotional investment and attention to detail molds real people from transcripted material, regardless of whether the actors' demographics match those of the people they are portraying. They sit on chairs, use no props, and tell their stories.

Stephanie Busing's scenic design makes sure that their performances are given our undivided attention. The stage floor and back wall are painted black, and within our peripheral vision are suspended screens on which grainy mobile phone images of hate crimes and still photos from news sources are projected to complement the narrative. Ambient sound, such as police sirens and church chatter, are provided by designer Craig Brock, and theatrical lighting design by Rachel Atkinson, which includes strips of light that run the length of the stage floor and up the back wall, add to the show's drama.

This production includes a break-out session placed in the middle of Act II that asks the audience to discuss the play's talking points in the hope of establishing a greater sense of community. This is well-intended, but the work speaks for itself and should be allowed to without interruption. After all, that's what documentary dramas do.


Notes From the Field

Zach Theatre
Kleberg Stage
1421 W. Riverside, 512/476-0541

www.zachtheatre.org
Through March 31
Running time: 2 hr.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More Zach Theatre
The Challenge of Playing Living People in Zach Theatre's <i>Notes From the Field</i>
The Challenge of Playing Living People in Zach Theatre's Notes From the Field
The cast discusses how hard it can be getting into the skin of living people in Anna Deavere Smith's play

Robert Faires, March 1, 2019

Zach Theatre's <i>Hedwig and the Angry Inch</i>
Zach Theatre's Hedwig and the Angry Inch
This revival gives the trans singer's identity crisis a punk lullaby with rockin' style

Robert Faires, Feb. 22, 2019

More Arts Reviews
Hyde Park Theatre's <i>A Doll's House, Part 2</i>
Hyde Park Theatre's A Doll's House, Part 2
Like its source material, this sequel from another mother entertains and inspires on its own terms

Bob Abelman, March 8, 2019

Elizabeth Chapin:
Elizabeth Chapin: "Deconstructing Nostalgia" at Wally Workman Gallery
This "type of padded cell of Southern culture" is, pardon us, insanely beautiful

Wayne Alan Brenner, March 8, 2019

More by Bob Abelman
Review: <i>Our Town</i>
Review: Our Town
City Theatre’s safe staging of the classic embraces nostalgia

Feb. 27, 2019

Austin Playhouse's <i>The Mystery of Edwin Drood</i>
Austin Playhouse's The Mystery of Edwin Drood
This musical production makes for an effervescent alternative to that other Dickens holiday show

Nov. 30, 2018

KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Zach Theatre, Kleberg Stage, Dave Steakley, Anna Deavere Smith, Michelle Alexander, Carla Nickerson, Zell Miller III, Kriston Woodreaux, Stephanie Busing, Craig Brock, Rachel Atkinson

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Updates for SXSW 2019

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle