By Ethan Zuckerman and Erhardt Graeff
One of the best tricks educators can use is the technique of pulling students out of the classroom to encounter the issues we're studying in the "real world." So it's a gift when an artist of the calibre of Anna Deavere Smith opens a new work in Cambridge just as the semester is starting. And given that our lab, the Center for Civic Media, studies how making and disseminating media can lead to civic and social change through movements like Black Lives Matter, a three-hour performance about the school-to-prison pipeline is an unprecedented pedagogical gift. A dozen of us made our way to the American Repertory Theatre at the end of August for a performance we'll likely discuss for the rest of the academic year.
Deavere Smith's work is often referred to as "documentary theatre," and Notes From The Field: Doing Time In Education follows a model she's rightly been celebrated for. Portraying individuals she's interviewed while researching a controversial topic, she recreates their physical tics and speech patterns on stage, telling their stories—and the work's larger narrative—through their original words.
Part of what makes this work is Deavere Smith's ungodly skill at mimicry. As it happened, the first character she portrayed during Notes From The Field is a friend of Ethan's—Sherrilyn Ifill, director of the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund—and when he closed his eyes, the rhythm of her speech was so similar to Sherrilyn's voice, he thought it must be a recording. In the next scene, as Deavere Smith donned orange waders to become a 6'4" 300-pound Native American fisherman, we were all willing to suspend any disbelief.