This is the time: Anna Deavere Smith at Berkeley Rep

Anna 1
Playwright, actor and educator Anna Deavere Smith is Sherrilyn Ifill, president and direct-counsel of the NAACP, one of many characters she plays in Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education, The California Chapter, a one-woman show featuring stories about California’s devastating school-to-prison pipeline. Below: Smith plays Kevin Moore, videographer of the Freddie Gray beating. Photos courtesy of

If you’ve ever seen a show by our foremost docudramatist, Anna Deavere Smith, you know the power she has over an audience. She conducts extensive interviews on her chosen topic, then she re-creates portions of those interviews an a cannily crafted show that is theatrical in its presentation and righteous in its political and emotional power. She makes her audience think, feel and converse for days (and beyond). Now, with Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education, The California Chapter at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, she is going even further. She’s turning her show into a full-blown seminar.

In so many ways this show is attempting to be more than a show. For instance, you don’t get a traditional program. You get an accordion-fold “toolkit” full of information, resources and social media connections (#NotesFromTheField). Smith performs for a solid 80 minutes, and then there’s an abrupt shift in Act 2 when the audience breaks into small groups situated in every corner of the Roda Theatre for a 25-minute, facilitated discussion about identifying what change looks and feels like and how people can commit to helping that change come about. In my group (backstage, which was fun), we had 15 people, a facilitator named Peggy, excellent snacks (Tcho chocolate and animal crackers) and an intelligent, heartfelt (if rushed) conversation about issues that had come up in the play. The discussion itself wasn’t world changing, but this notion of theater as civic engagement – we’re already in the room together, why don’t we take our interchange to the next level? – definitely is.

Anna 2

After the discussion, audience members head back to their seats for the 25-minute conclusion of the play, which is still a work in progress. Smith has compiled interviews from Baltimore and Philadelphia and is adding in the California contingent. Being unfinished is hardly a problem when you have a writer/performer/educator of Smith’s caliber. She offers her trademark style of inhabiting each character and mimicking their voices down to every pause and stutter. In her compilation of interviews, which focus mainly on experts in their field and real people (there’s only one politician represented, and he’s a councilman in the trenches of Stockton), so it’s not like she’s falling into that modern news trap of “fair and balanced” coverage, forcing commentary from both sides. Nor is she banging us over the head with her research and pushing her conclusions in our faces. Slowly and steadily she creates a composite of the overarching issues and gives us precise, intimate details from lives being lived in ways that illuminate those issues.

Among the people she so expertly represents (the production is directed by Leah C. Gardiner and features live bass accompaniment by Marcus Shelby) are a man from the Yurok tribe in Northern California who is an excellent example of the poor public education pipeline to prison; education philosopher Maxine Greene (who died last year); a mentor from Oakland; the young man who shot video of Freddie Gray’s violent arrest in Baltimore; one of the more visible protesters from the ensuing Baltimore riots; and a UCLA professor who notes that in stepping over or ignoring the mentally ill homeless people in our paths, we should really stop to consider “Who’s really mentally ill?”

The most powerful characters come as a trio from Philadelphia toward the end of Act 1. First is an “emotional support teacher” who does the best she can but feels completely inadequate to deal with the dysfunction and damage among her students. She recounts an interaction with an out-of-control 11-year-old that is devastating.

Then we hear from a judge who, in sentencing a troubled young man to prison at 19, admits defeat and tells the young man – before sentencing him for crimes to which he pled guilty – that the system had utterly failed him by not providing him a safe place and a good education. And finally is a school principal, the first in her family to go to college, who demands that her students experience the world and push beyond the limitations of their circumstances. She’s one person battling valiantly in an all-out war that, frankly, seems impossible to win, but she offers hope that it can be done.

There’s a lot of hope and compassion in this show amid all the depressing glimpses of the reality our society has created with its choices of where to invest time, energy and money (prison!) and where not (education! mental health! poverty!). The overall effect of Notes from the Field is hopeful. Anna Deavere Smith is doing what she can do and doing it incredibly well. We are called upon to commit to a single action to help make change, and that’s a hopeful directive as well. But the biggest take away comes as you exit the theater full of emotion and information and with the enthusiasm to, as one of the characters puts it, step into “wide awakeness.”

Anna Deavere Smith’s Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education, The California Chapter continues through Aug. 2 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $50-$89 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit

Anna Deavere Smith: Easy to love

Let Me Down Easy 1
Anna Deavere Smith explores the body and the body politic in her solo show Let Me Down Easy at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre. Photos by Joan Marcus

In the last year or so, Berkeley Repertory Theatre has offered an instructive survey of the solo show. Last summer, as part of the Fireworks festival, local favorite Dan Hoyle offered two of his pieces, both recounting his transformative travels. In that same festival, John Leguizamo went back to the well of autobiography for a high-energy, primarily comic show that ended up on Broadway.

Earlier this year, Mike Daisey, whom many would deem the reigning master of the monologue, offered two of his trenchant, highly charged pieces of theatrical journalism/activism.

And now we have Anna Deavere Smith returning after a too-long absence from Bay Area stages. More than any of these other solo performers, Smith raises the form to a fine art. She has the instincts and drive of a journalist, the performance style of a skilled thespian and the soul of a poet striving for grace.

Smith has said that Let Me Down Easy, which opened Wednesday in Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre, is “a great treasure hunt; I’m searching for examples of grace that I can share with the audience.”

She finds that grace and shares it. Let Me Down Easy fascinates, compels and ultimately moves us as Smith gives voice to bodies and minds involved in life-and-death struggles.

The dialogue of the show is taken verbatim from interviews Smith conducted with doctors, thinkers, patients, spiritual leaders and celebrities. Director Leonard Foglia has helped her shape the monologues into a show that is quite different from the last two shows she brought to the Bay Area (Fires in the Mirror about violence between blacks and Jews in Crown Heights and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 about the Rodney King race riots).

Let Me Down Easy While those shows revolved around very specific incidents, Let Me Down Easy meanders mindfully through a seemingly unrelated assortment of people as it builds a portrait of a nation at odds with dying and a medical system and government ill equipped to deal with the truly ill (especially if the ailing are poor).

Politics certainly plays a big part in many of the monologues, but this is a show more about the heart and mind, which is why it’s ultimately so moving. You leave the theater feeling nourished and provoked.

Though there are some familiar names in Smith’s collection — Lance Armstrong talks about how being competitive helps in races and in his defeat of cancer; ailing film critic Joel Siegel provides humor laced with a solid punch; writer/performer Eve Ensler of The Vagina Monologues fame practically gets into Tina Turner’s vagina and comes across as a brilliant neurotic.

But the most powerful words come from ordinary people like the doctor at a charity hospital in New Orleans that was practically ignored after the Hurricane Katrina disaster knocked out its power and water. We also hear from a woman in a South African orphanage where AIDS devastates her young charges, and it’s heartbreaking.

When Smith becomes former Texas Governor Ann Richards, the stage practically explodes with energy. Though battling cancer, Richards is (not unlike Smith) a force of nature as she explains how she’s had to re-focus her energy – conserve her chi as she describes it.

That people represented in the play – like Richards and Siegel – are no longer on the planet only makes their presence and their words and Smith’s evocation of them all the more potent.

The set by Riccardo Hernandez, with its semi-circular configuration of large mirrors, creates a sort of crucible in which Smith ignites flames of varying sizes and lets the flicker before gracefully allowing them to fade, one into the next.

For each character, she employs some little bit of costume (by Ann Hould-Ward or prop and then leaves it behind, so when she comes out to take her bow, she’s able to point to each “person” and offer her thanks for allowing their words and her body to share the stage.

For a work of art that deals so matter-of-factly with death, Let Me Down Easy, with its treasures of grace, is remarkably uplifting.


Anna Deavere Smith’s Let Me Down Easy continues through July 10 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $17-$93. Call 510-647-2949 or visit