It’s hard to put into words the impact Anna Deavere Smith’s Notes from the Field at the Royal Court has on you. This is a one-woman show that draws upon over 250 interviews and speeches to present a powerful piece of verbatim theatre that examines the link between racism, a broken education system, and the huge numbers of black Americans in prison.
The play starts off in Baltimore with the death of Freddie Gray, one of the many black men and women killed by US Police between 2013 and 2016. From here, Anna starts a flawless performance where, like a chameleon, she inhabits the bulk and flow of real men and women – witnesses, activists, educators and investigators – to navigate a path through contemporary American lives, focusing on the injustices meted out to black, latino and native american communities.
The righteous fury of the pastor’s speech at Freddie Gray’s funeral sits alongside the crushing fear of the mayor of Stockton for the future of the young lives growing up in his community; an educator in Finland’s musings on the treatment of students in schools contrasts with testimonies from former convicts on. And activist Bree Newsome’s internal conflict as she rallies herself to take down the Confederate flag segues intriguingly into an interview with Congressman John Lewis and his reminisces of Selma.
And these extended fragments, supported by harrowing footage of Gray’s arrest and other acts of violence from the era of Black Lives Matter, blend together to create this swollen river of injustice; a testament to the deeply entrenched white supremacy in the US.
Anna’s performance is mighty, her transformation from one character to the next as impressive as the words she speaks. And those words…. This is verbatim theatre with power for each element of this production has been thought through to the finest of degrees. Even the title itself – is it a reference to the field of research or the field of war? Add to that, the finale of the show itself.
Much commentary has focused around the ‘surprise’ ending, in that many were not expecting a piece so political and confrontational to end on a conciliatory note, espousing the virtues of peaceful reconciliation. But the clues are there all the way through this show with Anna weaving in speeches, interviews and commentary from those who have been examining the destructive legacy of racism on lives and even DNA, how violence begets violence, and how Americans desperately need that cycle to be broken rather than furthered.
I don’t know how I feel about that – when it comes to injustice I am driven by anger, for sure, so Anna’s piece brought so many questions and feelings rushing to my brain. This is a piece of work that will stay with me for a very long time indeed.
Bearing witness to injustice is also the focus for the quite extraordinary retrospective on the work of social documentary photographer, Dorothea Lange at the Barbican Art Gallery. Already a successful photographer in San Francisco in the 1920s, it was the 1930s and America’s Great Depression that made Dorothea’s reputation where she took her camera across the Great Plains and the Dust Bowl of the American heartland to capture the intense suffering and hardship of communities caught up in the destruction.
The disaster led to a huge displacement of American citizens, creating a tidal wave of internal migration as broken communities became internal refugees, moving across America looking for shelter and food. If John Steinbeck brought the words, it was Dorothea Lange who brought the images and such iconic works as Migrant Mother and Child Living in Oklahoma City are included in this powerful exhibition.
What strikes you moist about these images, which continue past Depression-era America to the internment of American citizens with Japanese heritage during the Second World War and the racial segregation of the 1950s, is their humanity. Dorothea had a quite remarkable talent for placing subjects in their wider context of their desperate situations, but not robbing them of their dignity. These are political photos, yes, but they are not exploitative.
And Dorothea’s achievements in this are thrown into sharp relief with the Vanessa Winship exhibition, which is running concurrently in the upstairs galleries at the Barbican. Vanessa is a talented photographer, but her selected works do not compare well with Dorothea’s. Vanessa’s photos from Turkey, the former Yugoslavia and the USA lack the context and location, and the cropped close-up portraits of her subjects may be well-taken but by robbing them of a wider landscape, they actually come across as quite anonymous.
It’s Dorothea’s works that take your breath away in this joint show. And what need we have for such humanity when it comes to the coverage of migration today. What it is to find your calling in life – and Dorothea achieved just that.
Women creatives are also at the heart of the new exhibition, True Colours at Newport Street Gallery, where emerging painters, Helen Beard, Sadie Laska and Boo Saville cover the white walls of Damien Hirst’s gallery with a riot of colours. Maybe such upbeat works reflect Damien’s sudden passion for bright bold colour palettes following the huge success of his latest Veil paintings, but I found little substance beneath the style.
I’ve never seen quite so many colourful penises as I those in Helen’s paintings. I expect she sees her works as some form of reclaiming sex from the male gaze but though they are interesting in their mix of explicit images with lurid playschool marker-pen colours, I can’t say I felt any great insight. Nor could I feel much from gazing at Boo’s colour field paintings, which were nicely executed washes of gradating shades, or Sadie’s abstract blocks of colour.
Perhaps I had been hoping for so much more given that female artists were finally allowed to take over the whole of Damien’s gallery for themselves but though I wanted to be encouraged by this, perhaps unsurprisingly I found these canvases as superficial as those of the gallery’s owner.
Notes from the Field, Royal Court, ran to 23 June. Sorry, it’s finished!
Dorothea Lange & Vanessa Winship: Politics of Seeing, Barbican Art Gallery, runs to 2 September. Admission £13.50.
True Colours: Helen Beard / Sadie Laska / Boo Saville, Newport Street Gallery, runs to 9 September. Admission free.