Anna Deveare Smith’s “Notes from the Field: The California Chapter” is a rallying cry to end the School-to-Prison Pipeline that, in alarming numbers, is effectively depriving mostly Black and Latino youth, but others as well, of their rightful adulthood. Under the leaky umbrella of capitalist economics, the justice “system” colludes with the education “system,” though neither function systemically, or otherwise, except to create conditions for entrance into the penal “system.” There, businesses that supply or contract out to prisons which are more and more privately owned, profit legally from the crime game, while systemically depriving, demoralizing, and pauperizing those behind bars, along with their families and communities. Today, the percentage of African-American males in prison exceeds the percentage that was enslaved in the ante-bellum South. If such outcomes are written into the laws and policies that wreak havoc with Black lives how can that not depreciate all lives, and our culture as a whole?
Smith’s one-woman show consists of serial narratives scripted from interviews with the variegated personalities who are prisoners, their family members, students, teachers, administrators, cops, politicians and educators. We see in Smith’s portrayals, how they relate to, or worse, justify making a niche for themselves in this Stockholm syndrome-like labyrinth. Out of the concrete and steel matrix that is home to both the prison and educational systems, she extrudes a grim artifact of a tableau, animated by virtue of her exquisitely faithful rendering of each character’s voice, body language, unconscious tics and moments of epiphany—a King of Hearts treatment of the insanity and chaos that shelters in place in each individual life. Still, Smith is determined that we don’t fall prey to the Berkeley-esque tendency to see saviors and victims, where she is showing us dungeons and dragons. To this end, in the program notes, she cites a dressing-room exchange with the actress Eve Best, on the subject of victimhood, in which she replied to Best’s query, “What ever happened to mischief?” by saying, “Privileged kids get mischief. Poor kids get pathologized.” She also finds a place in the show to include Tupac Shakur’s reference to the rose that grows in concrete, an echo of a James Baldwin metaphor, and we hear it again in the strains of Ben E. King’s “Spanish Harlem,” that plays us out as we exit the theater.
Smith conceives of Act II as a chance to convert each audience member from a passive listener into an activist with a voice. It’s an inspired idea that, in its 20-minute execution, drowns in a shallow pool of upper middle class mediocrity. If Smith could curate the breakout workshops personally, with the same fastidiousness that characterizes Act I, there might be a better result. Unfortunately, like a soufflé that has risen majestically in the presence of heat, when the concept meets the cold night air in the courtyard/bar where the workshops occur, it falls flat. Workshop participants self-consciously, or in some cases, smugly, reach for demands that they know have been raised and re-raised, decade upon decade, since the 1950s. With all their learnedness, they somehow fail to grasp that unless backed up by the power of a broad-based movement in the streets, under the raised (and mailed) fist of masses in motion, such a checklist of demands crumples. The listless recitation of the list’s items: more money for education, more better communication between bureaucracies and the “affected” population, more philanthropy, has less the makings of an actionable program and more the stuff of the adjective “kneejerk” as in the descriptor for the noun “liberal.” There is no mention of how to build a leadership. No one invokes the names of Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, or the cities of Ferguson, or Baltimore, where horrific acts of police brutality were answered with a sea of protest, raising high the slogan “Black Lives Matter!” Similarly, the glum-faced workshop members offer up no words of encouragement on which to build that reflect recent victories: the Confederate Flag’s removal, the gay marriage decision two weeks earlier, and the rolling victory of state after state enacting the $15 minimum wage. So, in the end, good idea, wrong audience.
I’d have liked to be in a “Notes from the Field” workshop with the young people from Baltimore and Ferguson, who speak so wisely about how to build a movement and the cadre to lead it. You might win even post-activism seniors in Berkeley to an action perspective that doesn’t for once throw money at a problem without winning masses of people to challenge the education system to quit futzing around with statistics, standardized tests, and every fad that comes down the pike, and instead, educate our young people with the social expectation and tenacity that characterizes Cuba’s, this week, called by the World Bank, “the best education system in Latin America.” There is no school-to-prison pipeline there.
Whatever the weaknesses of Act II, “Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education,” is a rare chance to see Smith, in all the roles she brings to life with such prescience, and the information she packs together into one explosive bombshell of a teach-in, accompanied by the incomparable Bay-Area jazz musician, Marcus Shelby, in a tone poem for our times. See it, and be sure to bring a copy of Che Guevara’s “Socialism and Man” to Act II.