CAMBRIDGE — Early on in Anna Deavere Smith’s solo show, “Notes From the Field: Doing Time in Education,” a news clip offers a chilling statistic. Some 7,500 children were suspended from public preschool in a single year. It’s a huge red flag when adults are writing off 4-year-olds and labeling them as “bad.”
That simple fact is at the core of this sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes frustrating, yet always thought-provoking piece about the school-to-prison pipeline, which is making its New England premiere at the American Repertory Theater. Smith, a tour-de-force solo performer known for her groundbreaking shows “Fires in the Mirror” and “Twilight: Los Angeles,” has set out to shed light on how our educational system fails children and feeds them into the prison system. In her signature style, she conducted numerous interviews and transforms into a large cast of characters. A former inmate remembers deciding to be the “worstest of the baddest” as a young boy in school. A mayoral candidate in Stockton, Calif., recalls children as young as 6 matter-of-factly recalling relatives shot to death.
It starts young. And it goes downhill from there.
And there are moments that are chilling. An “educational specialist” describes a prized student who was a brilliant writer. Later she finds out he is being sent to a penitentiary with a wonderful writing program. She is crushed: “Since when is that an opportunity?” Philadelphia high school principal Linda Wayman eloquently recalls her mother’s reaction when she graduated from college — “Thank you, Jesus! — and then goes on to say she has done her job if she can save just one student in a school where many kids read at a first-grade level. A judge laments a justice system run by strangers that sends young people off to jail without ever asking what went wrong.
Smith, every minute a virtuoso, juxtaposes these scenes with vignettes about the police violence that has risen to public consciousness since the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Freddie Gray in Baltimore. She portrays Kevin Moore, who recorded Gray’s beating, and captures his anguish as he says, “The camera is really the only thing we have to protect us that is legal.”
Brutal images from classrooms and city streets have gone viral in recent years, bringing reality 24/7 to desktops all over the nation, and that is reflected in the production. Riccardo Hernandez’s set features six white panels, which become a disjointed television or computer screen that displays sadly familiar scenes like Gray’s arrest and the Texas girl in the bathing suit being restrained by police while she cries out for her mother. In one scene, the panels display gray lockers in a Charleston, S.C., high school; at first glance, they resemble jail cells, not lockers.
Smith is a brilliant interviewer, yet the piece still feels like a work in progress, with some extraneous characters and other voices begging to be heard. None of her interviewees clearly nail the enormous problems with public education that contribute to the prison pipeline. A principal complains about charter schools, but the problem is deeper than that. I wanted to hear more about a one-size-fits-all system with crippling high-stakes standardized tests, inequitable funding, overworked teachers who are publicly shamed when they can’t do the impossible, crumbling infrastructure, violence, white flight. The list goes on and on.
That said, Smith’s performance is majestic. As in her other solo shows, she uses her body and voice as instruments of transformation, segueing from a preacher to a school official with the ease of a chameleon. Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes reflect each character, but it’s Smith who defines the people she is portraying. Even her face seems to change as she inhabits each one. She is accompanied onstage by bassist Marcus Shelby, whose music punctuates the performance.
The show — which clocks in at almost three hours — breaks in the middle when audience members are sorted into groups to discuss the issues. Smith tried to meld art and community action with the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue, an ambitious gathering of artists and citizens at ART in 1998. The attempts to engage the community did not work then, and this effort, while earnest, feels forced and interrupts the flow of the performance. I was with a group of lovely, engaged theatergoers, but in 25 minutes, I didn’t even learn their names. This is a case where the art speaks for itself, and the discussion is better later.
Smith returns for a coda designed to leave the audience with a sense of hope. She connects the civil rights movement of the 1960s with this current historical moment, with a moving speech by Georgia Congressman John Lewis, who was brutally beaten during the 1965 March to Selma. The coda reaches back to the past to find a pathway for the present, but it stretches to tie in with the school-to-prison pipeline theme. The point, perhaps, is that this particular historical moment, as grueling as it is, is a time when change can happen, and maybe 50 years from now, mercy will be possible. And “Notes From the Field,” with so many unforgettable moments, is a call to action.
NOTES FROM THE FIELD: DOING TIME IN EDUCATION
By Anna Deavere Smith. Directed by Leonard Foglia. Presented by American Repertory Theater. At Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, through Sept. 17. Tickets start at $25, 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.orgPatti Hartigan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.