It’s odd calling Anna Deavere Smith’s “Notes From the Field” a one-woman show, given that the HBO production is filled with so many characters it often feels like a casting director’s worst nightmare and/or greatest dream.
Yet this stage-to-screen adaptation of Smith’s off-Broadway production of the same name stars her and her alone playing a multitude of personalities. And their combined stories paint a troubling picture of class and race in modern America.
The 18 characters she brings to life in this 90-minute HBO film are real people. Their dialogue is culled from Smith’s “Pipeline Project,” in which the actor and playwright examined race and justice in America through the prism of 250 interviews she conducted starting in 2013.
Here Smith dramatizes the stories of a teen who was brutally arrested in her South Carolina classroom, the deli worker who videotaped the beating of Baltimore’s Freddie Gray and the woman who climbed a flagpole to remove the Confederate flag in South Carolina
The dialogue used in this production, which premieres Saturday, is pulled verbatim from those interviews.
Each subject Smith channels represents some aspect of the school-to-prison pipeline. The idea here is that the nation’s poorest kids — often minorities — are being pushed out of the classroom straight into jails and prisons, without the hope of a career or any sort of productive adulthood in between.
In telling their stories, Smith tells the story of a system influenced and broken by class bias and racial injustice.
The setting for this TV adaptation isn’t a radical departure from the play on which it’s based. Smith sticks to a minimal presentation — it’s often just her, a chair, a mike and a small wardrobe tweak from character to character: the Native American fisherman wears rubber fly-fishing coveralls, the African American pastor dons a robe, the young protester wears lace-up boots.
Smith and the drab, prison-blue shirt she wears throughout are the constants here. The actress, who’s played roles on “The West Wing” and “Nurse Jackie,” holds this collection of loosely woven segments together with a permeating compassion and intensity.
Initially, though, her dramatizations of such far-flung personalities are jarring.
One minute she is Baltimore protester Allen Bullock, who talks about how the police treated him when he was arrested in the protests following the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of the police, the next minute she is a matter-of-fact journalist.
The abrupt personality changes feel awkward at first, and it’s hard to swallow the usually eloquent and composed Smith as a swaggering, street-savvy young man. It feels exaggerated and overwrought, in that way that theater-to-TV productions often do. Television, after all, doesn’t have to play to the nosebleed seats.
But her bold approach quickly begins to make sense — these are the stories of under-represented and overlooked people. Their voices need to be amplified, and clearly, Smith is an effective and supremely talented conduit.
“Notes From the Field” includes reenactments of men and women, children and adults, blacks and whites, law enforcement and incarcerated.
They’re sometimes accompanied by footage or images of the event being described — the brutal arrest of a South Carolina high school girl by a burly officer that was caught on video in a classroom.
Snapshots of an economically depressed neighborhood in Stockton.
A young man fishing on a California Indian reservation has arms covered in tattoos.
Smith is a renowned master of the one-woman stage show, and she’s often drawn to documentary-worthy subjects. Her “Fires in the Mirror” was set around the 1991 Crown Heights riots while “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992” was about the city’s uprising following the acquittal of LAPD officers over the beating of Rodney King.
These award-winning plays were also based on interviews with individuals affected by systematic inequity and racism.
“Notes From the Field,” which was written and co-produced by Smith and directed by Kristi Zea, is obviously not based on entertaining or easy fare. Its stories are pulled from intimate accounts of life at the bottom. But the artistic flourishes here let in some light. For example, Smith turns some of the verbatim dialogue of her characters into spoken word, employing a stand-up bass player on stage for ambiance.
In one of the film’s more moving moments (and there are plenty of them), Smith re-creates a sermon by Jamal Harrison Bryant, pastor and founder of the Empowerment Temple AME church in Baltimore.
His words are in memory of Freddie Gray, and he’s presumably speaking to a full church. The “pastor” (Smith) speaks to some of those in the seats before him. They’re family members of black men and women killed by law enforcement.
He reads the names of their deceased loved ones: Eric Garner, Amadou Diallo, Kimani Gray while their birth and death dates flash on the screen, followed by the regional law enforcement body that killed them.
With so many souls being channeled and honored here, “Notes From the Field” feels like anything but a one-woman show.
‘Notes From the Field’
When: 8 p.m. Saturday