Anna Deavere Smith tackles educational system

Playwright-actor-teacher Anna Deavere Smith has created and presented several one-woman shows dealing with important social issues or events.

Her latest is “Notes From the Field: Doing Time in Education, the California Chapter,” presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

As she has done in her previous shows, such as “Fires in the Mirror” and “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,” she bases this work on hundreds of hours of interviews with people who have varying experience with, in this case, education and the criminal justice system. Directed here by Leah C. Gardiner, she then re-creates these people using their exact words and manner of speaking.

She focuses on the school-to-prison pipeline, in which students failed by the schools are highly likely to land up in jail. Many of them are people of color whose needs aren’t served by their schools and community. Many are treated unfairly by the police, who are subject to frequent criticism in this show.

This aspect of the show is punctuated by cell phone videos of police mistreating young black people. One is a 14-year-old girl in her bathing suit who is thrown to the ground and handcuffed with her hands behind her back. Another is the notorious death of Freddie Gray after he was arrested by Baltimore police earlier this year.

One of the people interviewed by Smith and re-created in this show is the Baltimore deli worker who took a video on his cell phone. Others include a Yurok fisherman with numerous run-ins with police, plus educators, a judge and researchers.

There’s a woman from Philadelphia whose mother was determined to see her rise above poverty and get a good education. When she became the first person in her family to graduate from college, her mother ignored admonitions against applause. Instead, when the woman crossed the stage to get her diploma, her mother jumped up and cried, “Thank you, Jesus.”

The title of each monologue along with the person’s name and position is shown on three screens arrayed around the stage (projections by Alexander V. Nichols). In the set design by John Arnone, various pieces of furniture are moved on and off stage by stagehands. Smith dons various jackets or accessories designed by Ann Hould-Ward.

Each monologue also is accompanied by unobtrusive but effective music composed and performed by bassist Marcus Shelby.

The first act runs about 90 minutes, followed by a break of 25 minutes or so. During this time, the audience gathers in randomly assigned groups throughout the theater and lobby to talk about ways “to help dissolve the school-to-prison pipeline and inequities in the education system,” a press release says. Each group is guided by a facilitator.

Hence, “You are the second act,” Berkeley Rep managing director Susan Medak told the opening night audience before Act 1. It’s “a grand experiment” meant to generate conversation, she said.

The final part of the show, which totals about two and a half hours, is “Coda.” This 10-minute section features Smith again and concludes with words by the late James Baldwin. This is perhaps the only weak spot in what otherwise is a compelling presentation by a gifted, thoughtful performer.

As for the goal of generating conversation, the show apparently achieved just that as people were engaged in lively conversations in the lobby and outside afterward.