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  • Angela Allyn

Black History alive and powerful at TimeLine Theatre

Slip past the green ivy covered gates on Wellington and Broadway and up the stairs to TimeLine’s intimate space and you will find yourself in a kind of living history, with Anna Deavere Smith’s complex and challenging play Notes From the Field which reflects on race, the justice system and the school to prison pipeline.

Deavere Smith has practically created her own genre: she extensively interviews subjects –for this script over 200–around a topic and then edits their verbatim expositions into oral history theatrical works that illuminate and transform our understanding of complex subjects. She tackled both the Crown Heights riots with Fires in the Mirror and the LA Rodney King riots with Twilight, Los Angeles, 1992.  I find her work, sometimes called Documentary Theater, grounded in the kind of first person storytelling that Studs Terkel pioneered. When she premieres these shows, she plays all the characters. In the TimeLine Chicago premiere Mildred Marie Langford, Shariba Rivers and Adhana Reid split the monologues, backed by informative and beautiful projections by Rasean Davonté Johnson on a spare set of dirt and a desk symbolizing the school to prison pipeline. This is a tour de force performance from all of them.   These actors are truly amazing: adopting postures, gestures, voices that bring the different characters to life, even when they are well known people like civil rights hero John Lewis. The audiences understanding is further enhanced by an extensive lobby display as well as further info on the theater’s

This is not an easy or entertaining work: it is a deep and thoughtful and sometimes uncomfortable dive into who we are in America and the shameful history that has brought us to this moment.  It is an important play and should be experienced.  The more than two and a half hour show feels long at points but the fact that we cannot become a better version of ourselves after hundreds of years feels even longer. There are so many layers and perspectives here and each deserves their time. 

There are many celebrations of the contributions of Black Americans this month, and this show too is a heavy and meaningful acknowledgement of how much has been sacrificed by Black bodies and lives to move our history forward.  Go see it.

Notes from the Field is playing Tuesdays through Sundays until March 24, 2024 at the TimeLine Theatre Company 615 West Wellington in Chicago.  For tickets and information go to

 Photo by Brett Beiner

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