MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
If the health care debate strikes you as political theater, well, you're not alone. Last week, a show opened off Broadway, a personal take on health care. It's called "Let Me Down Easy."
Jeff Lunden has the story.
JEFF LUNDEN: Anna Deavere 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," 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.
Ms. ANNA DEAVERE SMITH (Playwright): I like to say it's about the power of the body, the cost of care and the resilience of the spirit.
LUNDEN: "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, like Ruth Katz, who was being treated in the hospital and was told by an oncology fellow that her medical records had been misplaced.
(Soundbite of play, "Let Me Down Easy")
Ms. SMITH: (As character) I said, I'm associate dean at the medical school.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. SMITH: (As character) He found my files within a half an hour.
LUNDEN: After Anna Deavere Smith presented a performance for Yale faculty and students, she says she couldn't stay away from the topic. Smith estimates she's interviewed over 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.
Ms. SMITH: Here is this powerhouse of a body on the one hand who is, on the other hand, clearly vulnerable, clearly mortal. And so, talking to him about not only his Tour de France victories but also his victory with regard to cancer, having come close to death, how actually that all informed his ability to win the Tour de France, that 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.
He didn't really understand the magnitude of failure until he was facing death. As he says, you know, not that I thought I was going to die if I lost the Tour, but I didn't - I just didn't want of face this, this, this, this, this, this demon called failure.
LUNDEN: Most of the people in the play are not famous, but they all speak about the vulnerability of the human body, like Brent Williams, who Smith met at a wedding in Idaho.
Ms. SMITH: This guy walked in. He was so charismatic. 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, the financial market. I had no idea, you know, that people actually still rode bulls in the rodeo.
(Soundbite of play, "Let Me Down Easy")
Ms. SMITH: (As character) Well, we's in West Jordan, Utah, and this bull shoved my face right through the metal chutes and tore my face all up, and took me to a hospital. It took me five hours sewing up my face. And then the next day, they straighten out my nose.
LUNDEN: One of the most touching profiles is of Trudy Howe from the Chance Orphanage in Johannesburg, South Africa. She looks after children with AIDS.
Ms. SMITH: Trudy talks about how she prepares children for death. She doesn't hide it from them. 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.
LUNDEN: 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.
Ms. SMITH: And she tells a story about how the mother comes to the girl and tells her that she needs to pack all of her clothes because she's going to come and fetch her, that she's going home. And, in fact, Trudy walks into her room.
Ms. SMITH: (As character) All her clothes were packed, put in plastic bags, and it was waiting for her. That Sunday morning at three o'clock in the morning, Numza passed away. So her mother came and fetched her, and she knew she was going to die, and it's not a bad thing. All her clothes were packed. All her teddy bears were packed. And we took everything: her clothes, her teddy bears, everything. And I put it in her coffin.
LUNDEN: While telling these emotionally charged stories, Anna Deavere Smith never overtly deals with the politics of the current health care debate. But she hopes it gets people talking.
Ms. SMITH: It's not just policy; it's not just politics. That these are lives at stake, our lives, how we're going to live and also, I think, our dignity as Americans.
LUNDEN: "Let Me Down Easy" is running at the Second Stage Theater Off-Broadway until December 6.
For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.