Even her name can give you the shivers: Anna Deavere Smith.
If you’re a certain age, she introduced you to the power of a one-woman show drawn from multiple characters. There was nobody like her before – nobody so smart, nobody who didn’t so much do impressions as crawl inside her characters. Her Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities made you marvel at its sheer audacity and smarts. She’s so powerful she can use words like “impactful,” and you want to believe them. Since the 1992 Fires, she’s been all over the American scene, picking up a MacArthur fellowship and a Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize for sharing her luminous intelligence along the way. Right now, she’s at the Berkeley Rep, presenting Notes from the Field: Doing Time In Education, the California Chapter.
Initial seeds of the work — a treatment of what Deavere calls the “School-to-Prison-Pipeline” — go back to 2010, although interviews for it (like her other works, this is based on her interview subjects) didn’t begin until 2013. As Smith tells it, Ferguson happened, which energized the whole project and brought a whole new urgency.
Out of these interviews — and the coincidence of Ferguson with election year politics — comes Deavere’s conviction that we’re enjoying a brief window where we can pivot to realign priorities. The strength behind this conviction powered her performance as she cycled through on interview subject after another, flipping back and forth between first students and teachers, judges, principals and others who struggle with delivering an unsupported product.
She brings you a judge, who carefully parses his words, apportioning the system’s responsibility while delivering a sentence. She becomes Taos Proctor, a Yurok fisherman. She becomes a mother who spent Sundays riding the bus to other parts of town with her kids and opening a crack into another world. These are characters who will take up residence in your head.
Smith’s performance was elevated by accompaniment of jazz bassist Marcus Shelby who delivered a sexy, spare musical figures that rounded out the program.
Smith warns her audience “I bring the work to the stage at a midway point – not quite finished.” This lack of completion bedevils the work. Much of the second act was given over to audience discussion groups, followed by a short coda.
I suspect other groups were better than mine – a disproportionately large group whose facilitator apologized for the inability of everyone to hear as he led everyone through a flip chart brainstorming session which engaged some to in the group to call for revolution and others to pledge to talk to their grandchildren more.
Anna Deavere Smith will be at the Berkeley Rep in the Roda Theatre through August 2.