Anna Deavere Smith on healthcare, mimicry and President Obama
Anna Deavere Smith's one-woman show, "Let Me Down Easy," makes its TV premiere Friday on PBS. The playwright and actress ("Nurse Jackie," "The West Wing") conducted hundreds of interviews on the topic of healthcare, wittling it all into her signature collage performance. She assumes the roles of 20 people, including biker Lance Armstrong and former supermodel Lauren Hutton to ordinary patients and the frontline workers who tend to them.
We spoke briefly with Smith while she was in Los Angeles at the Television Critics Assn. to promote the show's premiere. (Unfortunately, she wouldn't give us any details on the upcoming season of "Nurse Jackie." We tried! )
What prompted the decision to focus on healthcare?
I was invited to do a project for the Yale School of Medicine in the '90s — way long time ago. And I just loved working there. I loved how the people who I interviewed expressed themselves, and it was something that really stayed in my heart. I sort of took five years off from the theaters. When I was ready to come back and do theater, I thought, ‘Well, maybe that would be a good subject.’ That was in 2005. So then I just started doing lots and lots of interviews. Four years later — and several productions later — when it was time to come to New York, is when President Obama was starting to roll out his healthcare bill. In fact, I did a reading in Chicago of the material at an event. Studs Terkel, who is a mentor of mine, was supposed to introduce me. He was too ill, so President Obama, who at the time was Sen. Obama, introduced me that night. The next morning we had a talk on the phone. I could tell then just how passionate he was about healthcare — this was well before he was even thinking about running for the presidency.
You did countless interviews. What was the one thing you took away when it was all said and done? Because the stories, while they may hint at policy issues, go deeper than that.
Exactly. I think the theme that sort of rose to the top was the idea of "care." Who cares about you? What is the miracle of somebody caring about another person? And having many opportunities to look at utter carelessness, like in the case with Katrina or even material that’s no longer in the play — Rwanda. Two tribes in the same country, the same race, dismembering each other and hurting each other. Genocide.
Your previous works focused on events: "Twilight: Los Angeles" looked at the L.A. riots in the aftermath of the Rodney King beating and "Fires in the Mirror" looks at racial tensions in two Brooklyn neighborhoods following a death and subsequent murder.
Right. And this time around I knew that I didn’t want to make another play with an event. If for no other reason, this was the expectation that people had come to have. Two shows of like, about 20, had events. And I don’t think that the form that I’m trying to develop requires an event. This play, I think, plays a little more like a piece of music. It gives you the space to think about themes, to come up with what the stories mean to you, what life means to you. I didn’t want to have an event, and yet I still wanted to make an evening of theater that would be coherent. It was just really hard. It’s just a lot of trial and error. What it requires is having people who take a chance on you. People who give you the time and the space and what you need to develop a project. I had a fabulous person in New Haven. I had a friend in Texas who gave me some money to work there. I worked at Stanford Medical School and ultimately started putting the pieces together well enough that I could take it to New York. And then Boston American Reperatory Theatre said, “Come here and work on it.” It’s really the kindness of people in medical centers and theater who helped this become real.
What’s your writing process like?
For me, it’s actually speaking the words. It’s actually standing up and speaking the words, which also makes it sloppy because I can’t do it as an intellectual project of sitting at a desk. I have to actually get up, speak the words, and learn the words — that is so hard, delving into the words, and every sound helps me know what it means. That’s really how it works for me. And I have groups of people who I look to for feedback.
In the show, you go beyond the accents and really capture people's essence through facial expressions and hand gestures. I imagine it's easier given that you video-recorded this time around. But do you find it challenging to mimic people?
I like to call it reiteration because I’m so focused. I was a mimic when I was a child. I mimicked the teacher and made friends that way, actually. That was a very subversive activity, because I was a goody-goody who never got in trouble. But if I went off in the corner and mimicked the teacher, people loved it. I saw mimicry as a way of bringing people together and me getting attention — subversive attention in the corner — not like me getting attention from a school play from everybody. It is, too, about seeking a kind of power. That’s not what I’m trying to do here. I’m trying to have a love affair with each one of these people. I’m pleased that almost all of them have seen it. It’s not so much whether they like it or not but that our relationship has been enriched by them having a chance to see what I see in them. I just love that. I’d like now to do longer portraits of people. Maybe a show that just had four characters.
What does documentary theater offer that maybe documentary film doesn't or can't?
I would love to have been a documentary filmmaker; I just didn’t have the resources to do that. When I got out of acting school, I was lucky to have gotten any job at all. A lot of people hiring African American actresses — it was right after "Roots," and for society, not me, it was great. Nice richly dark-skinned people was the fashion, and I was not. That was rough. And moreover, I really had questions about how language worked, and I did a lot on my own to sort of figure this out. If I was starting now, maybe I would have gone to film school. Back then, it’s the last thing I would have thought about doing. But I priobably would be a documentary filmmaker if I was starting now. I probably wouldn’t be an actor. This was just a poor girl’s way of making a documentary film. Just embodying it. Me being the camera and the characters.
— Yvonne Villarreal
Photo: Anna Deavere Smith as Elizabeth Streb. Credit: Michael Lutch.