A chameleon/activist speaks out at Berkeley Rep

Anna Deavere Smith: “Save the children!”1437590379NF1.jpg

I’m not an actor, but this week on Addison Street I performed in the second half of Berkeley Rep’s latest offering.  Okay, so there wasn’t any script, and I wasn’t onstage, but I was a contributor to the proceedings nonetheless, and hadn’t Anna Deavere Smith herself personally asked me to take part?

The title of the remarkable actor/activist’s latest show is Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education, The California Chapter, A work in Progress.  That’s likely the longest title ever to appear in this paper.  Though hers is billed as a one-woman show, Smith is not thoroughly alone.  She’s aided by expert prop and scenic minions, who silently slip in and out of view, and most notably by local jazz talent, Marcus Shelby, who stands off to the side bowing and plucking a bass fiddle that enriches and comments on what she’s telling us.

What she tells in a series of short scenes really happened, but each increment is more than just true; it is, as in her previous Rep visits–Twilight Los Angeles, Let Me Down Easy–the unaltered words of persons she’s interviewed, and we don’t just hear their words, we see them as well, more than a dozen, male and female, ex-cons and dropouts, educators and psychologists, even James Baldwin.  Smith “becomes” them by means of her stiletto-sharp talent for mimicry.

She’s a chameleon genius.

As have her other shows, this one serves a social purpose, this time to confront and change “the school-to-prison pipeline.”  It’s a phrase I didn’t know, but it turns out to refer to how the treatment schools give certain kids helps hasten them into crime and imprisonment rather than steering them away from that fate.  It needn’t be their fate, Smith insists, and her dramatic method immerses us not in statistics but in the lives of real victims, real enablers, potential saviors.

Her show is not a lecture, it’s a revelation.

Will all Smith’s consciousness-raising make a difference when her audience leaves the theater?  This is where my “performance” came in, because Act Two turns out to be a patron participation event, in which you shift, with twenty or so others, to a corner of the theater for a small-group discussion of the “pipeline” problem.  Your group brainstorms solutions.  Maybe you make a personal commitment to be part of those solutions.

Directed by Leah C. Gardiner, who never gets in the way of the witty directness that is Anna Deavere Smith’s trademark, the production is stirring and affecting.  Adding to the quality are John Arnone (scenic design), Ann Hould-Ward (costumes), Alexander V. Nichols (lighting and projection design), and Dan Moses Schreier (lighting).

A Rep special presentation, Doing Time in Education plays in the Roda Theatre until August 2nd.  The company’s 2015-16 season sets out in September with the world premiere musical, Amelie, based on the popular French movie.  For tickets/information call 647-2949 or visit