Life and Death with Anna Deavere Smith

How a famed solo performer chose to animate her exploration of the health care system.

Solo performer Anna Deavere Smith summed up her methodology during a recent interview with KQED Radio’s Michael Krasny: First, she sizes a person up to see if he’s “doable.” Then she closely observes his mannerisms. Does he stutter, for instance, or hem and haw mid-sentence? Does he flail his arms to animate a point? Does he use “umm” as a punctuation mark? Does he blow his nose, and if so, does he mop the snot up with a handkerchief? Most importantly, do speech ticks and gestures make him a more vibrant, interesting person?

It’s certainly not true of everybody. Of the 320 people that Deavere Smith interviewed for her current work, Let Me Down Easy — now playing at Berkeley Rep under the direction of Leonard Foglia — only twenty made it into the show. Their ranks include celebrities like supermodel Lauren Hutton, Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, and Vagina Monologues creator Eve Ensler. And yet, most of them are regular people: a rodeo bull rider named Brent Williams, a dialysis patient named Hazel Merritt, and a doctor named Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, who worked at Charity Hospital in New Orleans in the days following Hurricane Katrina. Deavere Smith interviewed all of them and took their words verbatim, weaving a tapestry of twenty monologues. The thing that these people all have in common is that they’ve all interacted with the health care system, either as patients or as providers — often in both roles.

And because health care is such a large, nebulous subject, it allows Deavere Smith to shift easily from the topical (costs, epidemics, class disparities) to the abstract (mortality, human decay). The playwright said she started every interview with a simple question: “So, what happened to you?” She was always amazed by the responses it elicited.

You could almost watch Let Me Down Easy as a triptych. The first part centers on life and vitality. Lance Armstrong talks about the difficulties of being a champ. Sports columnist Sally Jenkins discusses our unrealistic expectations of star athletes (namely, that they be immortal). Ensler preaches about “sek-shu-wality,” which she considers the ultimate life force. (She points to Tina Turner as a woman who is, like, “really in touch with her vagina.”) The middle part, about being sick and deteriorating, includes the interviews with Williams, injured boxer Michael Bentt, and dialysis patient Hazel Merritt, all of whom describe their hospital treatment in poetic detail. The last part, appropriately, is about death. Deavere Smith presents Trudy Howell, the director of an orphanage in Johannesburg, to talk about her work with young AIDS victims. Then she conjures the spirit of Joel Siegel, who compares cancer to “a snowflake,” in that “everyone’s cancer is different.” The playwright impersonates him by lying on a couch and projecting her face onto a video screen. From that supine position, she looks as though she (or, rather, Siegel) is being interviewed from inside a radiation chamber.

Deveare Smith has never been one to use excessive props or sound effects to enhance her stage performances. In this case, though, she brings out a few well-chosen artifacts to represent each character. Bentt has his Everlast boxing gloves, Armstrong his breakfast tray of berries and bran muffins. Jenkins has a tube of Chapstick and a ring to twiddle. Merritt has a shawl. Since the play has no scene changes, these props accumulate and clutter the stage. By the time Deavere Smith gets to Eduardo Bruera, a palliative care doctor at Anderson Cancer Center, the set has become a kind of mausoleum. She recites Bruera’s words sitting at the edge of the stage, dangling her bare feet into a dark abyss. Bathed in an amber glow (the work of lighting designer Dan Ozminkowski), she looks like the lone survivor of a shipwreck.

That effect may have been unintentional — part of the exigency of jamming twenty monologues into two hours — but, nonetheless, it very much reflects the personal style of Anna Deavere Smith. She has an uncanny talent for creating a vivid tableau on a blank canvas. Wearing dark slacks, a white button-down shirt, and no shoes or socks, Deavere Smith makes her body endlessly mutable. She uses people’s mannerisms — the way Armstrong presses his left knuckle into his temple, for instance — to reveal things about them.

Gestural rhetoric is as important as vocal intonation to Deavere Smith. She doesn’t merely impersonate. She matches a person’s cadence, mimics his movements, and inhabits his body. In so doing, she brings that body to life.


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