Anna Deavere Smith's uncanny ability to channel the people she interviews allows her to focus attention on tough issues in an unusually potent way.
Witness, for example, "Let Me Down Easy," her examination of health care and life and death issues (I count her performance of that show at Arena Stage in 2011 among my theatergoing highlights of the past several years).
Smith's latest venture, "Pipeline," examines what she describes as the "the cycle of suspension from school to incarceration that is prevalent among low-income Black, Brown, Latino, and Native-American youth."
The playwright and actress is presenting portions of the work in progress at select regional theaters. One of them is Center Stage, where she unveiled "Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education, the Baltimore Chapter" on Saturday and Sunday.
Whatever development remains in this theater piece, there is more than enough compelling material as it is. If you have contemplated issues of race, education and prison only from the safety of brief TV coverage or newspaper articles, this is a terrific way get a much more immersive experience.
In the one-woman show, Smith brings to life a wide assortment of people from around the country, digging into the elements that go into shaping the future of disadvantaged young people. Her trademark imitation of accents, speech patterns and physical gestures means that each figure gets a multidimensional treatment. (The subtle accompaniment of bassist/composer Marcus Shelby adds greatly to the proceedings.)
Even someone we know pretty well — Baltimore's mayor — takes on a new kind of reality here. And what Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has to say, in Smith's sensitive recreation, speaks volumes about what happened here in the spring. I paid a lot of attention back then, but I don't remember the mayor talking about the April rioting in quite the way, and with quite the detail, she does in this play.
And for all of the Freddie Gray coverage we've all lived through, there's still something fresh and riveting about hearing a monologue by Kevin Moore, the man who shot the pivotal video of Gray being arrested (again, Smith magically makes you feel the actual person is onstage). When Moore speaks of his camera as "the only weapon that isn't illegal," it sure hits home, and, obviously, doesn't apply only to Baltimore.
This is not a work just about riots (the monologues devoted to that topic would make a worthy play by themselves), but about the mentality and the toll, and about the lives that get caught up in cycles of violence, indifference, fear. It's about kids dropping out of school, or being driven out by a system that has lost its bearings or its skills. About police, courts and prisons that don't always seem to serve what could truly be called the public good.
I should hasten to add that the play is not a big downer. When Smith introduces a Philadelphia high school principal, a woman who has seen it all, lamented it all and still holds onto humor and hope, the effect is galvanizing.
It is worth catching the show just to hear this genuinely heroic figure talking about her own poor upbringing, taking bus rides every Sunday with her mother to see how other people lived, to dream about other possibilities.
And when the principal describes meeting a former, "AWWW-ful" student who has made good, don't be surprised if the way Smith delivers that moment in the monologue triggers a reaction in your tear ducts. Talk about uplifting.
Structurally, the piece doesn't entirely hold together yet. That scene with the principal would be the perfect end for Act 1, for example, but is followed by a deflating one. But Smith is likely to make lots of adjustments over time.
Speaking of acts, the second is reserved for the audience. Divided into small groups for a half-hour in places all over the building, including the stage, people discuss various issues with the help of a facilitator before heading back into the house for the last, much shorter portion of the show. (Expect a total running time of at least two and a half hours.)
I'm not much for this sort of thing, but it was fascinating Saturday to observe hundreds of folks — multiracial and multigenerational — interacting, going far beyond the usual passive state of theatergoing.
This sure was a persuasive demonstration of Center Stage artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah's vision for the institution — making it a true community place alive with conversation about things that matter.
I thought the show's epilogue might be anti-climactic, but Smith saved two of the best monologues for last — a longtime Jessup inmate who always felt she was "less than" and who now trains special needs dogs (everything she says about that task becomes a mighty metaphor that fits the play's topic); and, quite unexpectedly, a terrific recreation of the great James Baldwin discussing race, youth and opportunity 45 years ago in terms that sound all too relevant today.
"Doing Time in Education" makes for a sobering encounter with concerns that need to be examined and re-examined many times over. It's also a welcome opportunity to witness a uniquely gifted, passionate and challenging stage artist in her element.