(Oliver Laughland’s article appeared in The Guardian, 6/12.)

Compiled from three years’ worth of interviews, Anna Deavere Smith’s Notes from the Field confronts the criminal justice system and inequality in the US

Four storeys above the chaos of a blistering summer afternoon on Manhattan’s Eighth Avenue, Anna Deavere Smith sits in silence. The acclaimed American playwright and actor – who played Nancy McNally on The West Wing – glances at the rehearsal room floor, draws breath and begins the opening monologue of her one-woman show, Notes from the Field, assuming the voice of famed civil rights attorney Sherrilyn Ifill.

“It is impossible to talk about the criminal justice system, mass incarceration, without talking about education,” Smith says, capturing both the matter-of-fact exasperation and scholarly expertise you can imagine the NAACP Legal Defence Fund’s veteran president exuding.

The monologue is one of 19 speeches that make up the 90-minute show – all verbatim extracts from interviews Smith conducted herself or speeches made in public, which explore the uniquely American phenomenon of the school-to-prison pipeline.

The play is her first appearance in London for more than 25 years, and won critical acclaim when it was performed off-Broadway in 2016, including from President Barack Obama.

America incarcerates almost a quarter of the global prison population, with by far the highest rate of imprisonment in the world. The prison-industrial complex began during Nixon’s war on drugs and has continued to proliferate ever since, giving rise to a system that disproportionately punishes people of colour. Feeding into this dysfunction is a public school system, increasingly punitive and over-policed, that feeds the machine with young adults – disproportionately black and brown – abandoned by formal education.

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Photo: the Guardian

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