Anna Deveare Smith Tackles Health Care

Actress, playwright and performer Anna Deaveare Smith talks about her new work, centering on health care, and her new position as artist in residence at the Center for American Progress. She says she will use that perch for her next work about change in Washington.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Playwright and performer Anna Deavere Smith has been holding up a mirror to society in her one-woman, documentary-style stage shows. The topic is usually prickly.

"Fires in the Mirror" took on the riots in New York's Crown Heights section. "Twilight: Los Angeles 1992" dealt with the riots there.

Now, Anna Deavere Smith is tackling health care in "Let Me Down Easy."

For her work, Smith conducts hundreds of interviews, studies them carefully, and then re-creates those characters onstage with eerie accuracy.

She stopped by our studios recently and gave us her Studs Terkel, talking about a defining moment in history.

Ms. ANNA DEAVERE SMITH (Performer; Playwright, "Let Me Down Easy"): (As Studs Terkel) I don't think there's - you can't say Hiroshima. That's a big - I can't think of any one moment I would say was a defining moment. That's a slippage, the gradual slippage, moral slippage.

NORRIS: Anna Deavere Smith there, doing her version of Studs Terkel. She's the new artist in residence at the Center for American Progress, a Democratic think tank here in D.C. She is researching her next project, a look at the changes in Washington.

Ms. SMITH: Once Obama was elected, I thought, well, now's the time for me to go to the art storage space and start to take out some of these thousands of interviews that I have, and to make another kind of portrait of America. And this is a transitional moment in American history, you know, probably when we look at it, the least of it will be that we have an African-American president. But I just really wanted to be here to see how things unfold over the next four years.

NORRIS: Now, you have another piece that's in production.

Ms. SMITH: Right.

NORRIS: It'll open later this year...

Ms. SMITH: In the fall.

NORRIS: ...in New York City, but you've already done some performances elsewhere in the country.

Ms. SMITH: That's right.

NORRIS: That's called "Let Me Down Easy." Tell me a little bit about that.

Ms. SMITH: Well, "Let Me Down Easy", that started in 2000 at the Yale School of Medicine. I was asked to come there and interview doctors and patients. And it just really crept right into my heart for some reason, I think because people were so open, the patients in particular.

And so, over these last eight years, that's what I've been doing is paying attention to issues - we could call it health care but also the resilience of the human body on the one hand, the vulnerability on the other, and the inevitability we don't live forever.

NORRIS: When you do this performance, you take on a number of characters. And then when people leave, they're able to write down something that they may have thought or, you know, put down their own thoughts on paper and leave them on a bulletin board outside of the theater. What kinds of things do people write and leave for you? What kind of messages do you see?

Ms. SMITH: Well, you've done a lot of homework. That happened in Boston. I did not read them, unfortunately, only because the process of making a play and delivering it is so rigorous. I believe that there's nothing really - it's not so important what somebody takes away.

I believe people bring a lot, and that's the power of the theater or the power of the classroom. And the power of what you're doing here on the radio is that everybody who's listening to your show has got a life that's going on that's really complicated and wonderful sometimes, and not wonderful other times. And so they're bringing a lot, and then a magical thing happens when what you happen to say hits something that they've come with.

NORRIS: In the current work that you have in production, "Let Me Down Easy," there's a few of the characters that - I've not seen the production, I've only read about it - but they sound like fascinating people. And I'm wondering if we can, just in the brief time that we have, get to know a little bit about the mother who refuses dialysis.

Ms. SMITH: Hazel Meritt. Her doctor asked me to come and interview her because she was refusing dialysis, and she was going to die. And she believed that she could grab a hold of faith, and that faith would save her.

NORRIS: Why did she refuse dialysis?

Ms. SMITH: Well, her husband had died with a bad experience with dialysis, and her daughter had died with a bad experience in dialysis. So she really told herself, I won't have it. And as it turned out, she has finally decided to have dialysis, in part I think because Dr. Rasthagar(ph) - I guess in the health-care debate, we don't hear enough about the good doctors. He and his colleagues kept in touch with her even though she kept saying no. And she came to see the show, which was exciting to me and also exciting - I don't know why this would be exciting; moving would be the word - to learn that some of the things she told me, the doctor didn't know about.

NORRIS: What is it like for you as an artist that someone would talk to you, tell you things, that they would not tell their doctor in a life-or-death situation?

Ms. SMITH: Well, again, I think that that's the role we play in society. People in power have to be careful about what comes out of their mouth. They have to find exactly the right word that can't be attacked. And a doctor has to be careful and now, you know, doctors have 15 minutes of time, if you're lucky, to spend with you.

But I think that we as the fools can be the ones to listen and speak a kind of language that's not being spoken. I think of myself as a person who sees the world upside-down and that perhaps because I'm looking at it upside-down, I have something useful to say to the people who see it right-side-up, the school principal, the lawyers, the doctors, the government officials. Then I feel I'm doing my work.

NORRIS: Thank you so much for coming in to talk to us.

Ms. SMITH: Thank you.

NORRIS: That's Anna Deavere Smith. She's an artist-in-residence at the Center for American Progress.

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