Anna Deavere Smith Explores 20 Views of Life & Death in ‘Let Me Down Easy’

Anna Deavere Smith’s new play explores 20 views of life and death, and our health-care apparatus.

Charles Sykes / AP Photo

Following Anna Deavere Smith is like following a swiftly moving nebula. In the most casual conversation, she seems to flare at warp-speed. It may be the only assured still point in her constantly turning world is in front of her tape recorder while she is interviewing. Her modus operandi is not unlike that of a roving investigative journalist. No viewpoint or detail is too insignificant to be exhaustively examined. But that’s just the launch stage of her process.

Her star team has set down in Los Angeles for an 11-day run of her latest, one-person, 20-character play, Let Me Down Easy, a discursive examination of the current state of medical care through its professional providers, patients, administrators, teachers, legislative overseers, and concerned observers; also, not incidentally, an examination of the distrustful relations amongst these groups, and the fraught relations between human individuals and their own bodies. The play’s development itself reflects the crossing trajectories of Smith’s researches, evolving medical technologies and therapies, and the national debate on public health insurance.

Her work began in the late 1990s at the Yale School of Medicine, where she was hired to interview doctors and patients at Yale-New Haven and perform for them. “I got really inspired by the musical, emphatic way people expressed what was happening to them physically. The idea was to make a play about that.” Like any Smith project, it took on a life of its own, eventually spreading over three continents and comprising 320 interviews.

“When I came back [from Africa], I began to narrow down the play to tell the human side of the health-care crisis. Looking through photographs, thinking about what that trip gave me—I realized that the African way of thinking about life and death is very different from our own. To live your life well, and have respect for what came before or after—there’s a strong respect for that in African culture.”

Looking over her 20-character "cast," though, which includes Lance Armstrong, heavyweight boxer Michael Bentt, rodeo bull rider Brent Williams, and model-actress Lauren Hutton, it’s hard to escape the crosscurrents of will, denial, and something verging on hubris. Smith acknowledges the inherent contradiction.

“We respect the power of the human body—but what else is there besides our physical achievement? Even with people closely identified with their physical gifts—there’s the power of that; but what else is there?”

Smith is no stranger to Los Angeles. Her connections to the city are as rich as her material, and arguably, as fraught. Her ground-breaking Fires in the Mirror, which explored the Brooklyn Crown Heights rioting of August 1991 in the wake of two incidents that polarized racial and ethnic groups in that neighborhood, opened in New York around the same time the Simi Valley acquittal of LAPD officers involved in the Rodney King beating triggered city-wide rioting and unrest. Little more than a year later, Smith followed up with Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, which held up a mirror to L.A.’s own fractious socialscape.

Since Twilight, Smith has been a fixture as an actress on screens large and small, between films (Rachel Getting Married) and recurring characters on series television (Nurse Jackie). Between the orbits of her interview subjects and her own Rolodex that seems to include everyone of importance, influence, or greater-than-15-minute fame, she could publish her own brand of Los Angeles’ star map. But these aren’t the constellations Smith is interested in.

“Part of the spirituality of really extraordinary people has to do with the way that individual learns. Learning is a tunnel experience that makes us think more broadly. You see this with doctors, and occasionally people in the political realm: what we think we’re required to do and therefore how we communicate, how we confine ourselves to one pedagogy and how we think we must behave: the ‘dignified male leader,’ for example. Identity is an assemblage of constellations.”

Listening to Smith speak expansively on any number of subjects, it’s easy to imagine her as the linguist she once thought she might become. Instead Smith stumbled onto something larger: language as a key to character, and communication as the vehicle of its expression; that communications amongst individuals of distinct character would demonstrate an aspect of cultural definition.

“My grandfather, who had a sixth-grade education, informed how I think about character. ‘If you say a word often enough, it becomes you.’ That’s where the search for character begins. I was trained as a classical actor, but I grew up in the black church; and you’d see all this stuff happening there. I remember being at my maternal grandmother’s funeral, watching and listening to the black oratory, and seeing how powerful language works. That’s at the bottom of what I do—to look, to talk like someone else, as the entry into something else, the illusion of occupying another life, another sensibility.”

It’s been called “channeling” in the critical press, as if Smith were conjuring at a séance. Whatever the terms, it answers the audience’s suspension of disbelief with the performer’s suspension of judgment—the interior voice that silently molds and alters a character to more comfortably fit the actor playing it. It is not an easy transformation.

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“It takes four people working with me all the time. I’m not even talking about the theater people—the director, the visual artists. It’s hard to assume someone’s voice and manner. Your mind wants to take your body in one direction, but the character’s actual voice takes you somewhere else."

Smith’s working method begins to sound diagnostic, as if she were a clinical psychologist, or the linguistic anthropologist she might easily have become.

“At some point over the course of an hour where people are in a process of repeating themselves, there is a place where they break it. Those are the only moments that are really performative, where someone else can enter your world…. It signals that something psychologically. These 20 people are extraordinary in that same way. We all do it; we start to redesign language. Few people perceive that we’re doing it. They don’t realize how much we’re offering a new way of looking at us than they looked at us yesterday.”

But Smith is after something larger here, a reveal not just in the theatrical sense, but something psychological that offers a clue to the underlying cultural and political ethos.

“I’m trying to propose certain options for how we think about our lives, how we value ourselves and each other, how we give ourselves options. How do we value toughness? There’s the toughness of the bull rider, for example. Much later in the play, we see [ABC film critic] Joel Siegel losing his battle with cancer. ‘Cancer is a tough disease,’ he says. ‘Cancer might be tougher than Tyrannosaurus Rex.’ The rhetorical build increases their own personal understanding of what they’re going through.”

L.A. audiences expecting a broad panoramic mirror view similar to Twilight may be surprised by the intimacy and lyricism of Let Me Down Easy. “This play is more lyrical than the others…. It’s not a civic event. It’s a very personal event. It’s not about the riots or something like that. It’s about you, your life… I think that there’s an enormous amount of dignity in loss…. We worship the people who win. But those who have lost have a lot to teach us.”

The dramatic arc of a Smith performance is something always in flux, borne out of the complex subject matter and the innate lyricism of the narratives, but there seem to be echoes of everyone from Shakespeare to Kubler-Ross to, well, Michael Jackson, in Let Me Down Easy.

“One of the versions of this play was all about grace…. Jews talk about mercy. The Christian idea is ‘once I was lost, now I am found.’ But where you find it—quoting Michael Jackson—is ‘in the mirror.’

“We think of grace as beauty. I like the Lutheran idea that God’s grace will not take you where God’s grace cannot keep you. My secular idea is that it’s going to be OK.”