Notes from the Field, Royal Court, London, review: Anna Deavere Smith's powerful expose of America's criminal justice system

Marcus Shelby and Anna Deavere Smith in 'Notes From the Field': Joan Marcus Custom
Marcus Shelby and Anna Deavere Smith in 'Notes From the Field': Joan Marcus Custom


This harrowing and rousing solo show is the result of 250 interviews conducted during the Obama administration by the verbatim theatre pioneer and West Wing actor, Anna Deavere Smith.

She last appeared in London 25 years ago with Fires in the Mirror, her one-person docu-collage about the 1991 Crown Heights race riots. The Gate Theatre in Notting Hill recently revived her Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, a tapestry of testimonies gathered in the wake of Rodney King's televised beating.

This latest show is not set around a single incendiary. Rather, it is a powerful, patiently-assembled expose of the catastrophic inequities and iniquities of America's criminal justice system.

We hear from 17 people caught up in what is termed the “the school-to-prison pipeline.” From policy professionals to people on the street, from a Native American fisherman to a Finnish expert in teacher-training: all are played by Smith, shape-shifter extraordinaire, who makes us vividly conscious of their distinct personalities, down to the tiniest of verbal tics. It's a tribute to how intently she has listened.

The show begins with Sherrilyn Ifill, the President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defence and Educational Fund. She sets the agenda for what follows in noting how deprivation has been inflamed by disastrous policy decisions. Look at the disinvestment in public education that began as a racist response to school integration, and at the massive reallocation of funds into prisons.

The funnelling process from hopeless situation to another – to which students of colour are particularly vulnerable – looks like no accident.

We then see shocking footage of the infamous police arrest of Freddie Gray in Baltimore in April 2015 and the ensuing public disorder. From the reflective, bullet-point cadences of the NAACP chief, Smith switches to the jerky outrage of Kevin Moore, the young deli worker who videoed the atrocity which resulted in the 25-year-old Gray dying of a severed spine.

“Can you sever 80 per cent of your own spine?” asks Moore, who leaves us in no doubt that it takes “just a glance" for a black man to antagonise the cops.

It's a point echoed with lethal irony by the Pastor who preaches at Freddie's funeral: “He did something that black men are taught not to do – to look the police in the eye”. The Pastor turns a few verses from Luke into a thunderous rallying cry: “No justice. No peace.”

“This is American history, it's not African-American history,” declares Bryan Stevenson, the executive director of an equal justice initiative, making a valuable distinction. Notes From The Field is a scathing, cumulative indictment of a nation that seems to prefer incarcerating its disadvantaged to educating them.

Marcus Shelby, playing his jazz-inflected score on a double-bass, accompanies some of the scenes in Leonard Foglia's immaculate production. The concluding monologue comes from Congressman John Lewis recalling the Selma march in 1965 and the forgiveness that was later sought from him by a white policeman, too young to have been present. The audience is then invited to join in a chorus of “Amazing Grace”. This is arguably a shade over-conciliatory given what has gone before. Otherwise, a remarkably stirring show.

Until 23 June (