Education takes center stage

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Education takes center stage




Kris Stewart,
Online and Social Media Editor

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Music played throughout the Berkeley Repertory Theater as people scurried to their seats before Anna Deavere Smith’s most recent show began. The lights dimmed and the audience sat silently as the actress and playwright took the stage.

Each of the four acts of Smith’s “Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education,” carried an equally heavy tone. There were bursts of laughter throughout the performance, but for the majority of the show the audience sat in silence as they watched Smith step in and out of other people’s shoes.

“Notes from the Field” features Smith acting out the various points of view of interviewees she spoke with about the American education system, such as community leaders like Michael Tubbs, a councilmen in Stockton; Arnold Perkins, Chairman of The Mentoring Center in Oakland; and Abby Abinanti, Chief Judge of the Yurok Tribe in San Francisco and Klamath.


Award-winning playwright, actor, and educator Anna Deavere Smith portrays India Sledge, a student from West Baltimore 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. PHOTO COURTESY OF KEVINEBERNE.COM

Smith created and wrote “Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education,” with the intention to spark conversation about the current state of education in California. Racial disparity, classism and the correlation between education and incarceration were included among the themes presented in the production.

“Um, I’m always asked that question, ‘What is the number one civil rights issue of the day?’ and I’m very uncomfortable with that question,” said Smith, as she portrayed Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel NAACP Legal Defence and Educational Fund, in the play. “It is impossible to talk about the criminal justice system — mass incarceration — without talking about education.”

Smith is known for her documentary approach to theater. Her production “Twilight 1992” was a similar presentation in which she took actual testimony from people throughout the community in efforts to tell the story of the Los Angeles riots seen through a variety of lenses.

Smith’s “Notes from the Field” is designed to spark conversation about the school to prison pipeline, the many ways in which children — especially poor children in urban environments — land in prison.

Before the final act, attendees were split into several groups as Tupac’s “The Rose That Grew From Concrete” played in the background. Each group was asked a series of questions in an attempt to trigger discussion about inequality in America.

The first prompt on the board read, “Now is the moment.” People responded with words and phrases like change, healing, love, organized rebellion, dethrone the king, envision anew and break the pattern. Attendees were then asked to describe what the idea of change feels like. Responses varied from anxious and exciting to painful and frightening.

To close the presentation, Smith portrayed James Baldwin, reciting commentary given in a public discussion with Margaret Mead about power and privilege from 1970: “You and I, we become whatever we become. The curtain will come down eventually. But what should we do about the children?” Smith concluded, in the words of Baldwin, “We are responsible for the future of this world.”

The three week engagement runs through August 2.