Photo: Joan Marcus

A few years back, actor-scholar Anna Deavere Smith was about to appear at Carnegie Hall. She’d already been nominated for Tony and Pulitzer awards for her signature one-woman shows, but this was a little different. She was nervous, she told a friend, Brent Williams, who called her from Idaho the night before.

The answer from her friend is something she tries to remember, Smith told an audience last week at Philadelphia’s Lucille Roberts Theater. Williams answered deep from his vocation as a rodeo bull rider:  “F***k the form,” he told Smith, “just hold the horn.” By which he meant: there’s only so much you can control, so you just need to hold on tight to get through.

Williams, whom Smith met at a wedding and decided to include in her new show, is now among the 20 characters she embodies in Let Me Down Easy (see above right, in the cowboy hat). He’s just one of 320 people Smith interviewed for this prose poem about mortality, our physical selves and — as ever in Smith’s work — how American society is constantly surprising  its own best and worst tendencies. Among the surprises, she told Yale dramaturge Catherine Sheehy after a performance in Philadelphia, is the unexpected friendships that develop as she is “learning” her characters, like the one between herself–an NYU professor–and Williams, a cheery young Republican rodeo rider.

Smith told Sheehy that Let Me Down Easy is simply the latest in her life’s work, “begun 30 years ago in the arrogance of youth,” to find the essence of American character one individual story at a time, voicing each in her own body. Her signature mix of journalism and talk-story first came to acclaim with 1991’s Pulitzer-nominated Fires in the Mirror, for which she’d spent years talking to members of all the fractious communities of Crown Heights, Brooklyn. That was followed in 1993 by Twilight: Los Angeles, about the aftermath of the 1992 beating of Rodney King. From that one, many remember Smith’s portraits of famous people like L.A. police chief Darryl Gates; former Black Panther Elaine Brown;  and Cornel West, the now-celebrated Princeton professor of African-American history, whose oratorical rhythms snuck into Smith’s speech that day in Philadelphia.”I will not mimic Brother West,” she told Sheehy, before slipping  into those rhythms a moment later.

In the play, Brent Williams calls himself an optimist, she said, but for West it’s a different story. “Optimism tends to be based on the notion that there’s enough evidence out there to believe things are gonna be better. Much more rational, deeply secular. Whereas,” she said, speeding up into West’s rhythms, “hope looks at the evidence and says, It doesn’t look good at all. Doesn’t look good at all.  Gonna go beyond the evidence to create new possibilities based on visions that become contagious to allow people to engage in heroic actions always against the odds, no guarantee whatsoever. That’s hope. I’m a prisoner of hope.” In this 30 years of plays, has Smith found the American character, as she hoped? Rather than a single common core, Smith told Sheehy, what she’s discovered is complexity: and that difference, that diversity, is what makes us American.

Let Me Down Easy, currently on national tour after rave openings in New York and Washington, D.C.,  originated from Smith’s time as a visiting professor at Yale Medical School in 2007-08, where she was commissioned to take testimonies from patients and perform them at Grand Rounds. (Usually, it’s only eminent medical scholars who address Grand Rounds.) Most of the time, Smith told Sheehy, all she had to do to hear patients’ stories was ask one question: What happened to you? “People brought their files, their hospital journals. They prayed. People really want to testify, and I just gave them a chance.”

The only patient-character still remaining in the current version of the play is Ruth Katz, who tells how the hospital staff completely lost  her chart and files — until they learned that in addition to being a patient, she was dean of the medical school. Then, “they found my files within the half-hour.” Developed during the past decade’s national debate on health care reform, Smith embodies characters whose true stories engage with some of those issues without being bound by them. Texas governor Ann Richards and supermodel Lauren Hutton both reflect on how their status gets them top-drawer medical care as a matter of course, while Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, a physician at Charity Hospital in post-Katrina New Orleans, remembers how she realized that her desperately poor, largely African-American patients were far more used to official indifference than she had ever been.

Over the course of the production, however, Smith’s inquiry broadened beyond the delivery of medical care to our interactions with our own bodies, and how illness tests those extremes. Thus Williams, calling himself “an optimist” as  he describes multiple surgeries, comes soon after Lance Armstrong, who credits a multifaceted medical team with helping him to fight cancer and win the Tour de France, while jokingly gloating at the latter. And both are preceded by sportswriter Sally Jenkins, who explains why athletes take so much punishment: “They want to be all used up, to go to ashes. It’s just this force. I mean, downhill skiers drive120 miles an hour. I mean, that’s why it’s—with this whole doping thing, it’s ridiculous to say to them, Oh, no. Don’t do that. You might hurt yourself.” Smith also checks in with fellow playwright Eve Ensler, whose work is about women and our bodies, and whose tribute to Tina Turner is worthy of WVFC: “Now that is a woman who went through hell and who was able to live in her vagina. Wonderfully, completely.”

In the conversation afterward Sheehy asked Smith about the play as a song–wondering if Smith, who included a monologue about Schubert’s final sonata in her performance, though of the work itself as music. Smith nodded; she attends to the rhythm of voices, she said, especially when her interview subjects actually burst into song when talking about their experiences, about their mama’s death or their own cancers. “Sometimes they pray.”

All of these notes are sounded, these characters conveyed via the a gifted 50-something Smith’s body, her chameleon-like voice and clever costume touches.  When it’s over, many— including this audience member— are almost stunned that 90 minutes have already gone by, and unsurprised to be in tears.

In case you don’t catch it on this tour, Let Me Down Easy will be broadcast this fall on PBS’ Great Performances.  Keep your eye on your local PBS schedule. And prepare to testify.

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  • Diane Vacca April 11, 2011 at 2:22 pm

    Thank you, Chris, for the warm and insightful appreciation of one of our national treasures, Anna Deveare Smith.