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'Notes From the Field' is powerful, necessary and ultimately hopeful

Andrew J. Friedenthal, Special to the American-Statesman
Zell Miller III plays a range of characters in "Notes from the Field" at Zach Theatre. [Contributed by Kirk Tuck/Zach Theatre]

In the current era of a new civil rights movement, Americans are confronted with difficult, complex questions that demand answers. Playwright, performer and professor Anna Deavere Smith’s 2015 play “Notes From the Field” poses these questions in pointed and powerful ways.

Originally a one-woman show performed by Smith, the play takes the form of 17 monologues, drawn from Smith’s interviews with hundreds of people across the United States. In the process, she delves into the ways that the school-to-prison pipeline has robbed generations of children of the ability to just be kids, simply because of their race and class.

Zach Theatre’s new mounting of “Notes From the Field” (playing through March 31) is the first production of the play not to star Smith. Instead, director Dave Steakley has divided the monologue between four talented, local performers — Michelle Alexander; Zell Miller, III; Carla Nickerson; and Kriston Woodreaux. Each member of the cast introduces themselves at the start of the show, before transforming themselves, physically and linguistically, into a variety of different real-life people.

By touching on such issues as the killings of black children by police, the use of force by police officers in nonviolent school situations, and the general ways in which our school system and prisons are growing closer together, “Notes From the Field” is an excoriating condemnation of the early pathologizing of lower-income (especially non-white) children from a very young age. Rather than receiving the same resources and aid given to children born into families with greater means, the system can give up on these kids before they’re even fully developed, practically predestining them for prison. In these revelations, the play is heartbreaking.

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It is not, however, a play about resignation to the horrors of that system. Rather, “Notes From the Field” ends on a note of forgiveness, hope and love, in the form of a powerful and moving monologue (delivered by Miller) portraying civil rights hero Congressman John Lewis. In addition, by taking a break from the on-stage action during the second act to divide the audience into discussion groups, Steakley deepens the educational mission of this play, encouraging audience members to consider what direct actions they can take to make things better.

We live in difficult, tendentious times, and much of our current art is rightfully rooted in anger. Though “Notes From the Field” certainly touches on this necessary anger, it ultimately focuses its energy on turning that rage into productive action. As a complex, smart, moving portrayal of an incredibly important issue, with four strong performances at its heart, Zach’s production of the play is an important vision of what it looks like to work for something better rather than giving in to the worst in us.