Anna Deavere Smith Brings One-Woman Show To D.C.

Playwright/performer Anna Deavere Smith speaks to host Michele Norris about her one-woman show, Let Me Down Easy, now on stage in Washington, D.C.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Anna Deavere Smith is a theatrical shape-shifter. She takes on several characters in her one-woman shows to show several sides of a controversial ripped-from-the-headlines topic.

We spoke to Smith almost two years ago when she was working on a play about America's medical system. Now, that play called "Let Me Down Easy" has had successful runs in New York and Washington. In fact, yesterday, Smith gave a special performance of scenes from her play at the headquarters of the Department of Health and Human Services.

As is typical in her works, she inhabits the lives of many characters. Here she is playing a woman facing a callous health care bureaucrat.

(Soundbite of stage play, "Let Me Down Easy")

Ms. ANNA DEAVERE SMITH (Actress): (as Ruth Katz) I want to apologize, but we can't find your records. Could you tell me what kind of cancer you have? I said, this is appalling. He said, no, hey, it's not just you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: An injured rodeo bull rider.

(Soundbite of stage play, "Let Me Down Easy")

Ms. SMITH: (as Brent Williams) It took me five hours sewing up my face. And when they straighten out your nose, they take these two metal rods and shove them up your nose and work their way up. And it felt like it was just going out through my brains and out the top of my head. And everybody said it should've killed me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: And a woman dealing with an ill elderly friend.

(Soundbite of stage play, "Let Me Down Easy")

Ms. SMITH: (as Character) And, you know, when Esther, when Esther was in a nursing home, she couldn't converse with me. But when I was leaving, I turn to go to the door and she said, I see you still got that big ass.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: Anna Deavere Smith there on stage, and we're joined by Anna Deavere Smith here in the studio.

So glad you're with us again. Welcome back to the program.

Ms. SMITH: Fabulous to be back.

NORRIS: How do you choose your characters? How do you decide whose lives are expansive enough that - or interesting enough that you could step inside them and actually become that person on stage?

Ms. SMITH: Well, in the end, I am a student of expressions. So I would say that the 20 people who are in this show all have very interesting ways of expressing themselves. And then the other thing I would say about them is that they all love something.

NORRIS: And is that important? Is that the hook for you?

Ms. SMITH: Well, I think in this show, it's important because the show is ultimately about the love of life. So it's bringing all the good news about life.

NORRIS: Hmm. When you get something back from the audience, does that feed not just you as an actor, but do the characters respond differently on different nights to that?

Ms. SMITH: Hmm.

NORRIS: If I came to see you, would Brent respond differently? Brent is the bull rider, is the cowboy.

Ms. SMITH: Well, the two characters who have the most interplay with the audience is Governor Ann Richards and Brent Williams, the bull rider. He's an Idaho cowboy and yet he carries the most progressive message of the play. And, of course, Ann Richards is just a genius at working an audience.

(Soundbite of stage play, "Let Me Down Easy")

Ms. SMITH: (as Governor Ann Richards) No, I was not the first woman governor of Texas. In the '20s, there was Pa Ferguson, who was governor, and Pa was married to Ma. And Pa died. And Ma became governor. Now, she was the one, when asked about bilingual education, who said, if the English language is good enough for Jesus Christ, it's good enough or everybody.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SMITH: She really knows the crowd, knows how to ride the wave of a crowd, knows how to plant a joke, knows how to get all that stuff.

NORRIS: Master of timing.

Ms. SMITH: Master of timing, the late Governor Ann Richards.

NORRIS: How did you meet Brent?

Ms. SMITH: I went to a wedding of a young lady who I had known since before she was born out in Sun Valley, Idaho. It's rehearsal dinner. He walked in. He's extraordinarily attractive, like Montgomery Clift, but beat-up because he's a cowboy, but really charismatic. And I just couldn't take my eyes off him when walked in the room.

He looked right at me, came across, and sat down across from me. And I said to him, what do you do for a living? I'm a bull rider. Because we were in Sun Valley, Idaho, I thought it was something to do with the market.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SMITH: I couldn't believe he was really a real bull rider.

(Soundbite of stage play, "Let Me Down Easy")

Ms. SMITH: (as Brent Williams) Toughness? Well, we in West Jordan, Utah, and this bull shoved my face right through the metal chutes and tore my face all up. It took me to hospital. It took me five hours sewing up my face. And when they...

NORRIS: Help our audience learn a little bit about Brent. Tell us something about him, or might you be able to introduce them to him right here on the studio?

Ms. SMITH: Well, sure. I mean, he's a...

Ms. SMITH: (as Brent Williams) I told my wife you is going to come out here and interview me. She said, she's just talking. She's being nice. She's not going to do that. Why would she do that? Then you called up and said you was going to come out here and interview me. She went -looked you up on the Internet and said, look who she is. You're not even going to be able to answer her questions. She's talking about how, because I haven't gone to college, I didn't know how to talk professional.

Ms. SMITH: So even that made me a champion of him and I decided that I would put him front and center of all of my work. I believe that he has a lot in common with all people - with Cornel West.

NORRIS: Really?

Ms. SMITH: Yeah. Well, because listen to this. So here's what...

NORRIS: Cornel West, the Afroed professor.

Ms. SMITH: The big Afroed philosopher professor who taught me about hope. And he said this about hope.

Ms. SMITH: (as Cornel West) Hope and optimism are different. Optimism, you look out the window, you say, it looks pretty good out there. Hope says, it doesn't look good at all. Doesn't look good at all. Evidence doesn't look good at all, but I'm going to go beyond the evidence, create new possibilities based on vision, become contagious to allow people to engage in heroic actions. Always against the odds. No guarantee whatsoever. That's hope.

Ms. SMITH: Here is Brent talking about the same thing.

Ms. SMITH: (as Brent Williams) Basically, I'm an optimist. I always say I'm an optimist, because, you know, when you ride bull and do good in riding, it just feel like ain't nothing in this world that can probably like beat you up or anything like that. It just feel like life couldn't be better, you know? Like this is - that's what life's supposed to be. You feel like, I don't know, because so much power in it. Because if you think about it, we shouldn't be able to stay on top of bulls trying to buck you off, because we weigh like, you know, 150 pounds. Bull weighs over 2,000 pounds. But I think what keeps you on top of that bull is determination, something inside you.

NORRIS: Bring that back to health care. Well, how does that relate to...

Ms. SMITH: For one thing, one of the themes in this play is toughness, and that toughness is when you meet that thing that is going to defeat you, how do you ride that bull? And so I think the thing that gets us through, whether it's when you get a diagnosis, whether it's if you are having trouble with the health care system or with your insurance, the thing that keeps us going is this understanding that we are small, that we weigh 150 pounds, but the bull - what keeps you going is determination. And the determination is hooked into a belief that if you keep going, that if you struggle, something really beautiful is going to happen.

NORRIS: Playwright and actor Anna Deavere Smith. Her one-woman show is called "Let Me Down Easy" and it's currently on stage in Washington, D.C.

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Tales Of Suffering And Succor, Written On The Body

Anna Deavere Smith i i

Solo-performance pioneer Anna Deavere Smith set the standard for documentary theater in the 1990s; she's reached broader audiences with roles on TV's The West Wing and Nurse Jackie, and in films including Rachel Getting Married. Mary Ellen Mark hide caption

itoggle caption Mary Ellen Mark
Anna Deavere Smith

Solo-performance pioneer Anna Deavere Smith set the standard for documentary theater in the 1990s; she's reached broader audiences with roles on TV's The West Wing and Nurse Jackie, and in films including Rachel Getting Married.

Mary Ellen Mark

As the health care debate rages on, solo theater artist Anna Deavere Smith is bringing her own highly personal perspective to the table. Her new documentary play, Let Me Down Easy, has opened to rave reviews off-Broadway.

Smith has built a unique career by investigating hot-button topics with the curiosity of a reporter, the rigor of a playwright and the empathy of an actress. Her pieces Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles 1992 examined the Crown Heights and Rodney King riots from differing perspectives — she interviewed dozens of people, then theatrically reconstructed moments from those interviews onstage. In Let Me Down Easy, she looks at a universal theme.

"I like to say it's about the power of the body, the cost of care and the resilience of the spirit," Smith says.

Let Me Down Easy began eight years ago, when the Yale School of Medicine invited Smith to be a visiting professor and interview patients, doctors and administrators — people like Ruth Katz, who was being treated in the hospital and was told by an oncology fellow that her medical records had been misplaced. He doesn't seem to think that's an unusual occurrence — though when he asks Katz about her employment, and she tells him she's one of the medical school's deans, her files turn up within half an hour.

After Smith presented a performance for Yale faculty and students, she couldn't stay away from the topic. Smith estimates that she's interviewed more than 300 people on three different continents to come up with the 21 vignettes in Let Me Down Easy. Some of her interviews were with celebrities — like bicyclist Lance Armstrong, a "powerhouse of a body" who was nonetheless "clearly vulnerable, clearly mortal," as Smith puts it. Armstrong told Smith his near-fatal bout with cancer helped him win the Tour de France.

"He didn't know about how a team worked until he had to put together a team of doctors and nurses and researchers, in order to get better," Smith says. "He didn't really understand the magnitude of failure until he was facing death."

Most of the people in the play aren't famous, but they all speak about the vulnerability of the human body. Smith met one of them, Brent Williams, at a wedding in Idaho.

"This guy walked in. He was so charismatic," Smith recalls. "And he sat down across from me at the rehearsal dinner, and I asked him what he did for a living, and he said, you know, 'Bull rider.' And I thought he was talking about the market! You know, the financial market. I had no idea that people actually still rode bulls in the rodeo."

One of the most touching profiles is of Trudy Howe, who looks after children with AIDS at the Chance Orphanage in Johannesburg, South Africa.

"Trudy talks about how she prepares children for death — she doesn't hide it from them," Smith says. "She sits with them and talks with them about how they're going to die, and they have, as she says, this 'germ in your body; it's making you very sick.' "

Smith, as Trudy, tells the story of a dying girl named Numza, who says she's been visited by her mother in the middle of the night. But Trudy knows that Numza's mother died six years before.

While telling these emotionally charged stories, Smith never overtly deals with the politics of the current health care debate. But she hopes her show gets people talking.

"It's not just policy, it's not just politics," Smith says. "These are lives at stake; our lives, how we're going to live. And also, I think, our dignity as Americans."

Anna Deavere Smith's Let Me Down Easy runs at Second Stage Theatre through Dec. 6.

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