‘A student of expression’
In her newest one-woman show, Anna Deavere Smith takes on health care through the more personal lens of the body’s vulnerability and the resiliency of the spirit.
By Naila Francis
If she’d had a better eye, Anna Deavere Smith would have been a photographer.
This the acclaimed actor, author and playwright admits as she is pondering exactly what it is she’s after in her unusual process of crafting her one-woman plays from interviews.
Smith, a recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, has been credited with creating a new form of theater, given her deft blending of performance art with such journalistic inquiry.
But she had no such lofty ambitions when she became entranced with the revelatory power of words as a young girl growing up in a still-segregated Baltimore, where one of her grandfather’s aphorisms stuck with her.
“My grandfather was a man with a sixth-grade education, a self-made businessman in Baltimore and he said, ‘If you say a word often enough, it becomes you,’ ” recalls Smith, who left Baltimore to attend Arcadia University in Glenside when it was still Beaver College and then headed to San Francisco, where she received her master’s degree in acting from the American Conservatory Theater.
She learned how to embody others through words, a metamorphosis that became not so much about impersonation as it is about finding that moment, where body language and speech patterns and rhythm, even at their most awkward and idiosyncratic, collide to deliver genuine insight into someone’s character. She has used that skill to compelling, often incisive effect in her plays “Fires in the Mirror,” which dealt with the 1991 Crown Heights riot in Brooklyn; “Twilight: Los Angeles,” which explored the aftermath of the Los Angeles riots of 1992 following the acquittal of the police officers involved in the beating of Rodney King; and “House Arrest,” an examination of the US presidency and the media in the years prior to the Monica Lewinsky scandal. “Fires in the Mirror,” which broke her to prominence, garnered an Obie Award and was a finalist for the 1993 Pulitzer Prize, while “Twilight” earned her an Obie and Drama Desk award, as well as two Tony nominations.
Now, the star of television shows such as “The West Wing,” “The Practice” and “Nurse Jackie” is taking on another tough topic, the issue of health care, in her latest solo work, “Let Me Down Easy.” The show, in which she plays 20 different characters reflecting on death and illness, opens Wednesday at the Philadelphia Theatre Company under the direction of Leonard Foglia. Smith interviewed more than 300 people on three continents to create the piece, which debuted at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn., in 2008, before a revised version had its off-Broadway premiere at the Second Stage Theatre the following year.
Featuring conversations excerpted from transcribed interviews with the famous — cyclist Lance Armstrong, movie critic Joel Siegel and former Texas Gov. Ann Richards — and not-so-famous — a Buddhist monk, a physician at a New Orleans hospital post-Katrina, the director of an orphanage in South Africa, even an aunt in Baltimore — “Let Me Down Easy” is another one of her studies in portraiture.
“When I was a child, I was a mimic, so I’m basically taking that bit of something that I had as a kid,” she says of her journey to playwright and star of her one-woman productions, in which she gives voice to the viewpoints of many with perspectives ranging from the cultural and political to the searingly personal.
“Back then, all I needed was a tacky Panasonic tape recorder and I just started taking those verbal pictures that I captured and really just tried to make portraits. When I first sat down with a recorder, I was really studying how people talked. Nobody else does what you do when you talk. It’s very specific to you. I wanted to know about that and that became the lens through which I started to study human beings.
“My simple practice is to take these words and say them verbatim and at least have the illusion that I’m representing something about the person. Now that I’ve done it for so many years, I’m hoping to create a relationship with the person I’m portraying so they experience it as more than just an impression. It is an interpretation. It is what I heard. It is what I saw.”
The idea for “Let Me Down Easy” took root in a surprising assignment. In the late ’90s, Deavere was invited to be a visiting professor at the Yale of School of Medicine. There, she was commissioned to interview staff and patients to create a piece on modern health care that she would then perform at the school during medical grand rounds, or what she describes as “a kind of fuddy-duddyish assemblage of doctors.”
Smith is no stranger to the world of academia. She taught for 10 years at Stanford University, is a professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and is the founding director of the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue, which encourages the development of new works that address social change. Yet the Yale commission caught her off guard.
“It came totally out of the blue,” she says. “I was invited by a very imaginative doctor named Ralph Horowitz, who was then the head of internal medicine there. … I was pretty intimidated, but it turned out to be a pivotal moment in my life, to be in that community.”
The doctors’ work ethic, energy and aptitude for ideas proved exhilarating, but the patients’ tales were what affected her the most.
“I found the stories of the patients to be very, very compelling and I found the generosity of the patients to tell me about what happened to them and how they felt about it to be extremely beautiful,” says Smith, who went on to conduct similar interviews at the Stanford Medical Center and the MD Anderson Cancer Center.
Eventually, as she expanded her scope to other communities, individuals and locations, she decided to create a play. The death of her mother in 2003 after a lengthy illness and of her good friend, Elizabeth Neuffer, a war correspondent for the Boston Globe who was killed in a car accident in Iraq that same year, also drove her. But Smith wasn’t sure how to whittle all she’d gathered into a cohesive vision.
“I never know that. I’m not good at that. I’m blessed because I have been able, with these plays, to attract artistic directors who just have been so generous to me and have faith in me. Never was I able to say, ‘This is what it’s about, this is what I’m doing,’ ” says Smith. “Gordon Edelstein, (the director) at the Long Wharf Theatre, gave me one of the best gifts I got in my life. I had 320 interviews and no idea what shape they would take.
“He said, ‘Just come up here to Long Wharf.’ … I went into a room with him every day for two weeks and he just sat there while I did characters, and that kicked it off. Then you make a little bit of gel out of that and maybe that’s enough to get to the next step.”
For Smith, who considers herself “a student of expression,” “Let Me Down Easy” is not about mining controversy for controversy’s sake.
“My two most well-known plays are about race riots. A lot of people think, ‘Oh, that’s her, that’s her work.’ Guess what, folks? Just because I’m black doesn’t mean that race riots are my natural state of being. That’s not how I grew up. I grew up with very peaceful, educated black parents, and in a peaceful, loving community of people that wouldn’t cause trouble,” says Smith.
“People call me controversial, which is so interesting because it’s not my temperament. I’m not interested in the excitement of trouble because I’m scared of trouble — I’m a goodie-goodie — but what I’m really interested in is the extraordinary creativity that happens when people are trying to make sense of what happens to them.
“When a person’s status quo gets thrown off, they become very expressive. That’s when I become interested because their language becomes very, very interesting.
“What really took me to those riot plays was the fact that the equilibrium in these communities, no matter what side of the fence people sat on in their experience, was gone. It was interesting for me to be there as a student of expression as people were trying to make sense of it. “
That human ability, to somehow find a way to move beyond tragedy and devastation, is at the heart of “Let Me Down Easy.” Even as she takes on topics like the steroid scandal, cancer therapies, preferential treatment and the ailing of the American health care system, Smith hones in on the smaller stories to give a picture of the whole.
“There are moments that could be called indictment, but I think it’s a little bit softer than that. I see the human side of the health care story that is being spoken out in politics and in the media,” she says. “This play is about the vulnerability of our body, the resiliency of our spirit and the price of care.”
It also is part of a continuing series, “On the Road: A Search for American Character,” which she began after graduate school, tape-recording interviews with individual Americans from diverse backgrounds.
“The rodeo bull rider (Brent Williams), he’s one of the most well-liked characters in this play. He says, ‘If you think about it, we shouldn’t be able to stay on the back of the bull that’s trying to buck you off because we weigh 150 pounds, they weigh over 2,000 pounds.’ I’ve interviewed thousands of people and I love that sentence because to me, it captures something about the American character, which is that we are hopeaholics,” says Smith. “We believe in the face of 2,000 pounds we’re going to stay on the back of the bull. One of the themes that keeps recurring in this play — whether you call it being on the back of the bull, whether you call it being resilient or whether you call it being tough — is moving forward
“What keeps us going is love and care. … Many Americans want to make sure that we’re not just taking care of the people who win. We also have to take care of the vulnerable, and there are many opportunities for audience members to think about the people who win and also the people who are not winning and to open their heart to both.”
Though Deavere has a busy TV career and has also appeared in films such as “The Human Stain,” “The American President,” “Philadelphia” and “Rachel Getting Married,” her self-penned stage shows surpass a mere love of acting. It is here that she is able to embody the artist as an agent for change. That was the forum in which she began, exploring issues of race and gender in her earliest monologues while she worked in higher education, before her acting career took off. Eventually, she became a go-to “expert” among schools like Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania, who would call on her to create works to help foster understanding and healing in the wake of racially charged incidents on campus. Those early pieces, woven from interview subjects chosen by the school, ultimately led her to “Fires in the Mirror,” following a decision to shape her own works from her own interviews.
“That’s the space I’ve carved out for myself,” says the actor, who recently founded Anna Deavere Smith Works, a nonprofit that convenes artists from across the globe to address the world’s pressing problems in their art. “I’m trying to find that balance between something that does have what we would say is artistic excellence but at the same time causes people to think that if they can do something about something in their world, they will.
“We often think those two things don’t go together, but … I have to find ways to cut and put together my time so that I am protecting my performance and at the same time doing the other things that have to do with keeping the window of my studio open enough that I am walking in the world.”
– The Bucks County Courier Times and The Intelligencer