Review: NOTES FROM THE FIELD At TimeLine Theatre Company

Chicago premiere of Anna Deavere Smith’s documentary play about the school-to-prison pipeline runs through March 24, 2024.

By: Feb. 09, 2024
Review: NOTES FROM THE FIELD At TimeLine Theatre Company

With NOTES FROM THE FIELD, playwright Anna Deavere Smith once again proves she’s a master of her genre of theatrical storytelling. Known for her documentary (or verbatim) plays, Smith presents monologues from 19 different interviews in this exploration of the school-to-prison pipeline in America. By allowing her interview subjects to literally speak for themselves, Smith has mastered the art of showing and not telling. NOTES FROM THE FIELD has a clear agenda; it’s a searing condemnation of the systemic failings of the American judicial, police, educational, and penitentiary institutions — and most notably a condemnation of the ways in which those systems have failed Black and Brown Americans. But Smith conveys her points with a blistering humanity (even if, at two hours and 40 minutes, I think she could have arrived at those points with a shorter run-time).

Originally performed by Smith herself as a one-woman show, director Mikael Burke’s production for TimeLine features three Chicago actors to bring Smith’s text to life. TimeLine ensemble member Mildred Marie Langford, Shariba Rivers, and Adhana Reid beautifully portray all of Smith’s interview subjects. This style of theater is no small feat to perform, but Langford, Rivers, and Reid understand the assignment, lending unique physicalities and speech cadences to their various characters. Just as Smith’s script artfully weaves between more light-hearted and more serious monologues drawn from her interviews, so too must the actors draw on distinct emotional places to bring those monologues to life. 

Smith has structured NOTES FROM THE FIELD so that the monologues largely become more poignant and more serious as the play goes on, which likewise means Langford, Rivers, and Reid’s portrayals of the roles become more powerful and hard-hitting in that structure. I was particularly struck by Langford’s portrayal of Denise Dodson, a former inmate at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women, who was sentenced after her ex-boyfriend murdered her rapist. Langford lends a quiet power to her performance; she allows audiences to see how Denise’s experiences in prison have shaped her life and have worn on her, but also allowed her to demonstrate a kind of resilience that seems impossible. She’s equally magnetic as Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, who recounts some harrowing anecdotes both from his legal career and his childhood. Among other roles, Reid is astounding as Niya Kenny, a young Black woman from Columbia, South Carolina who recounts recording a classmate incident in which a fellow Black female classmate was violently arrested by a school police officer. Reid beautifully embodies Niya’s youthfulness, passion, and immense distress; she nails Niya’s energy of being brought right back into the moment while recounting it. She’s also particularly striking as Bree Newsome, an activist who was arrested for climbing the flagpole at the South Carolina state capitol to take down the Confederate flag. In her performance, Reid distinguishes Bree’s activist energy with a more relaxed presentation, but no less sense of passion. Rivers likewise displays remarkable range in her various roles; she’s particularly captivating as Taos Proctor, a Native American former inmate, and as John Lewis, a Georgia congressman and fundamental civil rights activist. 

Langford, Reid, and Rivers beautifully bring Smith’s diverse line-up of interview subjects to life — and do so using minimal props and costume pieces. Costume designer Christine Pascual has notably chosen to have the actors perform barefoot, with all-black clothing ensembles forming the basis for their outfits. Eleanor Kahn’s scenic design allows Ellie Terrell’s projections to take center stage, and the dirt that covers the stage floor underscores the play’s exploration of hardships but also underscores that ultimately all the humans in this play are subjects of this earth. 

A caveat: Some of the monologues go too long. I think that’s in part because Smith cares deeply about her subjects and didn’t want to trim some of the material, but I know my attention span has shortened these days, and I found my mind wandering in moments. I don’t think that the play needed to be so long to communicate Smith’s thesis. 

That said, Smith is skilled at finding the “buttons” in her interviews; each monologue concludes with a punch. This is a play with a specific agenda, but Langford, Reid, and River’s performances ensure that the production is also full of humanity and emotion. 

NOTES FROM THE FIELD runs through March 24, 2024 at TimeLine Theatre Company, 615 West Wellington.

Photo Credit: Brett Beiner