Facilitator: “How are you coming to this conversation? “What’s going on with you? In one word.”
Hesitant at first, the guests in the Green Group reply one at a time: “Children.” “Interesting.” “Disappointed (I can expand on that later).” “Learning.” “Perspective.” “Powerful.”
The Green Group of invited audience members, one of several such batches scattered around the theater, sits facing each other in the lobby of the Kleberg at Zach during a break in a recent tech rehearsal. To the side waits veteran Austin actor Zell Miller III, who, along with Carla Nickerson, Kriston Woodreaux and Michelle Alexander, plays multiple characters in “Notes from the Field,” a docu-drama that began life a solo-actor show by and for Anna Deavere Smith, better known outside of the theater world for her commanding movie and TV performances.
Midway through the second act of this show that explores the school-to-prison pipeline and “prison nation” that faces mostly youths of color, the trained and paid facilitators lead up to eight small groups in community break-out discussions.
This innovation is not unique to Zach Theatre. This is the first multi-actor version of “Notes from the Field” approved by Smith, who visited Zach last year for a screening of the HBO recording of her powerful 2016 solo show. Two stagings of the solo play with Smith in all the roles, however, also employed such community discussions.
“We hired 22 facilitators by reaching out to groups such as Texas Appleseed (which is dedicated to the school-to-prison pipeline problem) and to other educators and artists,” says Zach company manager Gabriela De La Rosa, who runs the complicated breakouts along with Zach educator Chad Dike and marketing director Drew Nebrig. “We were looking for folks who already had experience leading such conversations, especially restorative justice conversations that offer a safe space for all voices to participate.”
The facilitators try to accomplish this perfect state of temporary social equilibrium by repeating five rules or agreements.
• Open-mindedness: Listen and respect all points of view.
• Curiosity: Seek to understand, not to persuade.
• Brevity: Aim for short, focused and honest comments.
• Individuality: Speak for yourself, not on behalf of a group.
• Challenge yourself: Step out of your comfort zone.
The groups present this rehearsal night were populated by every sort of conversationalist, some more outgoing and opinionated that others. Sampling each gathering from a discreet distance, one could hear speakers with well-formed ideas about public policy on education, prison and police misconduct alongside others who barely opened their mouths.
When audience members first arrive at the Kleberg for the show that runs through March 31, they are given random color-coded nametags that indicate where they will end up during the conversations.
There’s plenty to talk about.
Begin with the fact that the Kleberg’s thrust stage — with audience set on three sides — encourages guests to watch the responses of others. The simple staging by director Dave Steakley includes four askew screens hung above the performers that help identify the real people that Smith interviewed, the recorded scenes of beatings and shootings, and key words that might pop up in the later conversations.
Individually, the topics will not startle anyone who has paid attention to the news for the past few years: grotesque examples of abused power; stories of stressed parents, teachers, students and counselors pushed to the point of despair; responses from social and political leaders that at first seem inadequate to the scale of multi-generational oppression until some sort of emotional closure seems possible during the deeply moving final scenes.
When the time arrives for the community conversations, the house lights come up, and facilitators lead their temporary charges with color-coded paddles to niches inside and outside the stage house. At first, the participants, who represent this night a wide spectrum backgrounds — with a slant toward intellectuals and social workers — seem nervous, awkward.
They discuss different parts of the play, but also express larger feelings.
“The year is 2019!” one guest exclaims. “And still we’re dealing with things that go back to 1850.”
Others are motivated by unexpected empathy.
“I learned from the mother’s perspective.”
“I was surprised by the young people speaking up for themselves.”
“My family has not been directly affected by all this, but we came close.”
“I kept thinking: We’ve got to get through all this.”
“I certainly identified with the child who is always thinking: Am I doing everything right? Does there always got to be a punishment?”
The actors join four of the groups, but hang back until all the guests have spoken, unless addressed directly.
In one subset, participants are asked to identify the No. 1 civil rights issue of the day. One young man cites “juvenile justice.” He speaks so eloquently on the subject, nobody else offers an alternative.
But his is also the point of Smith’s play.
Other familiar points of social justice are raised, from gentrification to food deserts, but they fade in comparison to the seemingly unstoppable progression from slavery and Jim Crow to turbulent desegregation and mass incarceration along with a barely concealed retreat from investment in public education.
The placement of the community conversations in the flow of the play seems apt. The audience has more than enough information, but not all of it.
Yet another round of discussions could have followed the words of NAACP Legal Defense Fund President Sherrilyn Ifill, as quoted by Smith with breathtaking simplicity near the end of the play.
“How do we help people be people with a future?”