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Influences: Actress Anna Deavere Smith

July 20, 2011 | 10:00 am

Smith Anna Deavere Smith didn't invent the one-person play. (The honor most likely goes to the ancient Greeks.) But in the last 30 years, she's invested the solo form with a sense of political urgency that makes her brand of theater an increasingly rare example of the artist as engaged citizen.

"Let Me Down Easy," at the Broad Stage through July 31, is Smith's exploration of the nation's healthcare crisis. The actress interviewed more than 300 people and condensed her material to 20 characters, all of whom she plays over the course of one hour and 35 minutes.

Smith has been touring with the show since she finished filming the most recent season of Showtime's "Nurse Jackie," in which she plays the uptight hospital administrator Gloria Akalitus. The play grew out of a visit to Yale Medical School, where she was invited to interview doctors and patients and enact their stories live.

In her plays -- which include "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992" and "Fires in the Mirror" --  Smith channels the words of her subjects verbatim, down to their ums, ohs and awkward pauses. Her subjects in "Let Me Down Easy" include the famous (Lance Armstrong, Ann Richards) and the not-so-famous (her elderly aunt).

Smith recently discussed some of her artistic influences while on a short break in Wyoming. ("Altitude builds stamina," she said by phone.)

Lorraine Hansberry (writer): She'd always meant a lot to me. I always wanted to play Beneatha [in "A Raisin in the Sun"]. I cried when I got an audition to play Ruth. Now when I get called it will be for the part of Mama. A long time ago, I was in my apartment and heard a voice on the radio. In those times, I would  listen to the radio to learn about rhythm. I heard two different rhythms going on ... it was Lorraine who was hyper-articulate, and the other was Mike Wallace. I've studied this interview carefully. What you realize is how much they were enjoying each other and how present they were in the conversation.

Modern composers: It was by accident that I learned about new music. I happened on the radio on a festival of minimalist music during the '70s. Robert Ashley has a piece called "The Backyard," and that led me in that same radio series to Steve Reich's "Come Out" and "It's Gonna Rain." They're more like a chant. I thought this has everything I wanted to understand about what speech can do.

Isabelle Huppert (actress): I saw her in Paris in "Quartet" directed by Robert Wilson. The thing about Huppert's performance in "The Piano Teacher" is there is absolutely nothing too grotesque she can do. I would love to know how her imagination works. She's restrained, but she's completely in it. You don't know what she's going to do next.

Mary Ellen Mark (photographer): In one of her books, she writes something that succinctly expresses the psychology of the camera: It creates the necessary distance that allows you to come close to strangers. And that's what my tape recorder has done for me since the '70s.

RELATED:

Theater review: 'Let Me Down Easy' at the Lyceum Stage

Anna Deavere Smith tells tales of the ill in 'Let Me Down Easy'

PBS to televise Met's 'Boris' and Anna Deavere Smith's solo play on sickness and dying

-- David Ng

Photo: Anna Deavere Smith in a scene from "Let Me Down Easy." Credit: Joan Marcus

 

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