Unique Berkeley Rep show faces racial conflicts but may miss mark

[Woody’s Rating: ★★★☆☆

Anna Deavere Smith portrays Johns Hopkins research Professor Robert Balfanz and many other characters in “Notes from the Field.” Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com.

Anna Deavere Smith beat the odds — and became a theatrical powerhouse.

Despite being an African-American, despite writing one-woman shows with multivarious characters all played by Anna Deavere Smith, despite staging controversial in-your-face portraits of racial conflict.

Now she’s battling the odds again.

But is likely to fail.

In the unique Berkeley Rep’s “Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education,” she takes on the entire American educational system and its undermining attitude toward poor people of color.

It simply may be too wide a target.

The experimental piece — part drama, part audience participation — covers dense terrain and poses tons of questions.

But it provides only amorphous answers.

I kept waiting for a specificity that never came.

Part of Smith’s “Pipeline Project,” which is seeking to alter school-to-prison practices she contends have decimated the future of a generation, “Notes” is based on 150 interviews she conducted.

In sub-divided sections of an 80-minute first act, she impersonates a riot videographer, an Oakland mentor, a Stockton councilman, a Stanford shrink, UCLA and Johns Hopkins professors, a protestor from Baltimore (where the playwright-performer was born), a Native American ex-con, an emotional support counselor and a high school principal — plus a Philadelphia judge who cried when sentencing a young man because society also was guilty.

She recreates the individuals’ stories precisely as told to her.

That, according to a National Endowment for the Humanities website profile, means “complete with false starts, coughs, laughter, and so on…‘If they said ‘um’…I don’t take the ‘um’ out.’

As in the 64-year-old’s previous shows, Smith’s performance is phenomenally good.

Although her olive drab jacket/shirt and dark pants stay put, she changes personalities by altering facial expressions, verbal pace and timbre — and footwear.

Projected film clips of cops beating blacks and of rioting underline the painful pleas of her portrayal of youngsters being forced into the criminal justice system, of white officials who find few alternatives.

I found it depressing.

But not as disheartening as the ostensibly novel audience breakout sessions about which in a pre-show briefing Susan Medak, Rep managing director, said, “You are the second act.”

The mostly white 23-member group I attended — one of 20 clusters in all — just didn’t come alive.

Its discussion was buried in idealistic but impractical notions, though the writing pads we’d been given carried the printed motto, “The change starts with you.”

Participants proffered suggestions to “move beyond our comfort zone,” “fight racism” and “stop police brutality” — without explaining how.

I had the distinct sense I was at a rally that couldn’t gel.

Smith, who labeled this special presentation “The California Chapter” and a “work in progress,” punctuates all the heaviness with humor.

The opening night audience chuckled accordingly.

If a bit uncomfortably.

It also appeared to dismiss Marcus Shelby’s plucky but sometimes sorrowful jazz bass accompaniment.

Smith, who’s probably best known for her TV roles on “Nurse Jackie” and “The West Wing,” initially gained fame through two early ‘90s documentary theater inventions, “Fires in the Mirror” and “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992.”

The first, dealing with the Crown Heights riots in Brooklyn, earned her a Pulitzer Prize nomination.

The second, about the Rodney King verdict aftermath, won two Tony nods.

“Notes” is in effect a variation of the theme.

Smith, who won a MacArthur fellowship for blending theatrical art, social commentary, journalism and “intimate reverie,” believes she’s now delivered “a chance to reimagine and recreate a new war on poverty. Education is a crucial part of that.”

In a dramatic coda, she utilizes circa 1970 quotes from black writer James Baldwin that the problem is “the children and their children.”

Not that much, I guess, has changed.

Yet 45 years have passed.

Smith’s UCLA character adds a thought in “Notes.” The “biggest problem in our country,” he proclaims, “is indifference.”

Anna Deavere Smith’s latest magnum opus may be many things, but uncaring isn’t any of them.

“Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education, the California Chapter” plays at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre‘s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley, through Aug. 2. Night performances, 8 p.m. Sundays and Tuesdays through Fridays, 7 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Matinees, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets: $25 to $89, subject to change, (510) 647-2949 or www.berkeleyrep.org.

Contact Woody Weingarten at www.vitalitypress.com/ or voodee@sbcglobal.net