During my first year of teaching in Sanger, California, there was a small gang incident in my classroom, which ended up with me having to escort two kids out of my room. Both kids were smallish 10th graders. The kid who identified as a surreño was funny and silly. The one who was a part of the surreño’s rival gang, the norteño’s, was polite, soft spoken.
For some reason, they were about to have it out right in the middle of class. So I jumped up and escorted both kids out of the room. Since my arm was on each kid, one of them had to open the door. And as the norteño kid reached to open the door, his rival made one final demand:
“Yeah bitch, open the door for this surreño.”
These were not bad kids. Quite the opposite. But because of what was more than likely heavy influences in their lives, this was the path they were on.
Probably the saddest thing about that incident happened about 30 minutes later, when the student who opened the door returned to grab his backpack on the way to an inevitable suspension – he said in his typically quiet voice, “I’m sorry.”
The memory of this incident came back to me strongly as I watched Anna Deavere Smith’s powerful and poignant world premiere, entitled “Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education, the California Chapter.” The show is such an example of what Deavere does, and has always done so well – showcase a distinct set of voices, a theatre that allows her name recognition to take a back seat to the message she brings forth. We don’t cheer the big theatre star when she makes her entrance. The lights go up, she is there, and we are off and running. Director Leah C. Gardiner moves the piece fluidly, with tight and seamless transitions.
In the case of this production, the subject is the school-to-prison pipeline. Through a series of monologues and vignettes taken from Smith’s exhaustive research and interviews with nearly 150 people who are directly affected by a generation of lost children from poor communities, we are given multiple perspectives on what this pipeline has cost our youth.
We meet a principal of an inner city school – a woman who fights the odds in order to see at least one child find success after graduation. There is a pragmatic and justifiably angry Kevin Moore, the man who filmed the police brutality footage of Freddie Gray, a man who strongly states, “The camera is the only weapon we have.” And there is young, ideal Stockton city councilman Michael Tubbs, who fights for the youth despite the public’s undying nihilism.
Many of these vignettes were amazingly powerful. Hearing bassist Marcus Shelby provide rich undertones of pain and sadness gave the pieces shape and texture. But there were certainly a few that are striking in their ear-shattering subtlety.
Take the story of Philadelphia judge, Daniel Anders. He speaks softly while showing the audience three pictures of the same boy. The first is a picture of the boy at five-years-old, his first brush with the law. He is adorable, with a soft face and eyes that are alive. In his teen years, any innocence he possessed was long gone. And as more years have passed, that little boy turned into a hardened criminal, with tattoos on his face and eyes that have seen too much.
Anders is clearly conflicted here. He readily acknowledges that this young man made plenty of bad choices. But he is also compelled to let him know, as a society and as a system, “We have failed you.”
Smith also does not hesitate to take on perceptions, sharing footage of the recent situation between a group of black kids in McKinney, Texas and a police officer, seen taking a 15-year-old girl in a bathing suit forcefully to the ground, driving his knee into her back.
This footage is heartbreaking. Now I have seen it many times before, but this time it was footage without sound, without the noise from a 24-hour news pundit. To hear the description of the incident, in which the girl wanted her mommy, was painful.
It is easy for large swaths of society to make gross misjudgments about the prison population. Why don’t they just work harder? Other people come from tough circumstances, why can’t they overcome it like the others did? They are there because of their bad choices; it’s a simple as that, say many.
Well, no, it’s not as simple as that. Through these vignettes, Smith paints a deeper and much more nuanced portrait. In poorer communities, schools are not as adequately prepared. Kids more than likely are not coming from parents who are as educated, putting a tougher burden on a teacher who is overwhelmed with students who may not have the confidence or precedent to know what an education can do for them. And their paths may already be set, based on who is around them, and who does or does not believe in them.
Smith makes no excuses for any of it, just an acknowledgement of what is certainly causing the problem. Before concluding the show with a powerful act three coda, she invites the audience into a second act that is all about what can be done through various breakout sessions led by facilitators. This piece is solid in its premise, yet left something to be desired in its execution. That’s not entirely the show’s fault. In some cases, the facilitator can be soft spoken and, in my group, because we were in theatre seats that faced forward, you couldn’t hear anyone in the first rows. Yet it certainly was uplifting to hear what people were trying to do in their own communities, as mentors who are working to share the possibilities that exist with our youth. This is a perspective children more than likely are not getting elsewhere.
As a high school student, I sucked major ass. Not that I was getting in trouble or hanging with gangs. I just didn’t put a whole lot of effort into the concept that education was the key to my future. But I was lucky. I had two parents in my home that loved and supported me, even though I didn’t give them much to be proud of until I got into a play the second semester of my senior year.
I also didn’t have to walk through drug dealers on my way to school, or have gang life influencing me at every turn, even though it was certainly there for many I grew up with. For so many of our youth in poor and broken homes, their path is carved out for them. And the fact is, these are all of our children, and until we acknowledge that, we will continue to lose so many to choices that will cut their potential, and possibly their lives, very short.
Despite some glitches in the production, Smith does here what she does best – create a necessary theatre and an overdue dialogue that puts the onus on all of us. She clearly has passion for her subject matter. And much like her groundbreaking, seminal work “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,” Smith comes along at a critical time in our nation’s history, with racially charged incidents dominating our headlines almost daily.
Despite the underlying sadness of the piece, Smith certainly provides hope through those voices she channels. But it is up to all of us to turn that hope into real, honest compassion, and true, honest action.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
Berkeley Repertory Theatre presents, “Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education, the California Chapter”
Created, written and performed by Anna Deavere Smith
Directed by Leah C. Gardiner
Music composed and performed by Marcus Shelby
The Word: A necessary, powerful piece by Smith
Stars: four out of five
Through Aug. 2nd
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA 94704
Tickets range from $25 to $89
For tickets and information, call (510) 647-2918 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org