The current TimeLine Theatre Chicago premiere production of Anna Deavere Smith’s Notes From the Field made me a bit regretful that Smith herself was not here in Chicago to perform the play as it was originally produced, as a one-woman show in which Smith portrayed 17 different individuals who had been caught up in the web of unjust or disproportionate policing or imprisonment. The TimeLine production features, instead, three actors — Mildred Marie Langford, Adhana Reid, and Shariba Rivers, taking on the (now 19) different roles. It’s a rather different experience than a one-woman show, as the artistic emphasis shifts slightly from Deavere’s verbatim recreation of her own interviews with more than 200 persons caught up in the criminal justice system to, instead, dramatic performances of those interviews, transforming a sui generis work of political theatre into something more closely resembling a traditional play. Nonetheless, the three actors are exceptionally skilled at inhabiting the personas of the interview subjects — and Shariba Rivers, in particular, is downright bone-chillingly remarkable — making for an absorbing and at at times lacerating evening of theatre.
Each of the drawn-from-life vignettes portrays an individual who either deliberately or inadvertently was caught up in the turbulent slipstream of American history, with a particular focus on ugly, racially tinged encounters with the American system of policing and justice.
Among the individuals whose direct testimony we hear are Bree Newsome, a young Black woman who courageously climbed a pole to remove a Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House in 2015 — and why was the flag of the defeated, discredited and traitorous Confederacy still flying 150 years after the Civil War to begin with? While the flag was soon replaced, its permanent removal later that year was credited to Newsome’s brave act of civil disobedience.
The play, directed by Mikael Burke, also presents a hugely powerful and rousing re-creation of the eulogy presented by the Rev. Jamal Harrison Bryant at the funeral of Freddie Gray, who suffered grievous injuries to his cervical spinal cord after being arrested by Baltimore police for possession of a knife that later was determined to be legal. The great American Congressman John Lewis also makes a powerful appearance. (Dialect coach Sammi Grant no doubt played an integral role in bringing these varied characters so compellingly to life.) It’s a profoundly human and affecting work of realism that illuminated incidents and characters — the good, the bad, and the wholly innocent, like a 14-year-old girl in a bathing suit crying out for her mother as she is being arrested — who were caught up in a system both larger than them and (in moral terms) frequently much smaller.
One of the finest aspects of Smith’s play is its unblinking fidelity to reality, focusing as it does on the actual words, as relayed to Smith, of what actually happened to each of the 19 individuals, supplemented by footage of actual incidents captured by witnesses and projected behind the actors. (The projections designer is Rasean Davonté Johnson.) It isn’t as if no conclusions are drawn — they are, and powerfully so, but not by means of authorial intrusion, patronizing lectures or tiresome agit-prop, but by direct witness and participant accounts.
I find it saddening that Bree Newsome, the young woman who removed the Confederate flag, has subsequently utterly lost the plot, calling for the complete abolition (not merely the reform) of police and prisons, a concept that would cause all Americans of all colors to become infinitely less safe than they are today. She has also endorsed grossly antisemitic theories about “Zionist doctors” and has focused her attention on fashionable and false calumnies about Israel while neglecting, among many other issues, the modern Arab enslavement of Black Africans. Newsome has fatuously conflated white supremacy, an undisputed historical reality underscored by Smith’s work, with a supposed, and largely imaginary, “Jewish supremacy.”
I cite Newsome’s case as an illustration of the wisdom of Anna Deavere’s Smith methodology in Notes From the Field, which eschews broad-based political commentary — and the making of glib political connections where none exist — in favor of the human, the particular, and the lived experience. Even one of the 19 testimonies presented in this powerful production will have more impact on its audiences that a thousand ill-informed lectures or social media posts by those who, unlike Anna Deavere Smith and her subjects, were never actually there to bear witness. Notes From the Field will be playing through March 24, giving Chicago audiences the opportunity to bear their own sort of witness as well by means of this unmissable production.
Notes From the Field is playing at TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington Avenue, through March 24. Tickets are available at timelinetheatre.com or by calling 773-281-8463.