Back in the 1990s, when I first saw Fires in the Mirror, a play about a conflict in which African Americans and Orthodox Jews battled in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, I wanted to meet Anna Deavere Smith.
That play was amazing, it broke new ground and introduced like a mini-explosion a talented, gifted, completely unfazed-by-anything playwright-actress, a do-everything, want-to-know-everything kind of woman. Smith played all the parts—community activists, some of them familiar in the headlines, rabbis, students, neighborhood angry young men, the victims, the agitators, the angry citizens and residents of a place where two very different cultures collided.
Smith followed the success with Twilight: Los Angeles 1992 about the devastating, luridly and large LA race riots which followed in the wake of the Rodney King verdict, a conflict which the whole country, black and white and everything in between watched in their living rooms.
I thought then, because I didn’t know much more, that she was attracted to ethnic and racial conflict, that place where America’s outsiders and insiders met and rubbed each other raw to the point of explosion.
I expect I was wrong about that, or rather that this was a limited view. An African American daughter of a coffee merchant and a Baltimore school teacher and principal, she was interested in bigger things: America itself.
I never have actually met Smith face to face, although I’ve seen the many faces she presents on the stage in her latest production, Let Me Down Easy, which is about … well that’s something that might still be something of a question mark , perhaps even to her, it’s such a billowing bunch of big subjects that it contains.
I did get to talk with her on the phone recently and the time went by so fast, that I’m not entirely sure what happened. I do think this: anybody who tries to put Smith into some kind of category, or genre of playwright or artist, or tries to pinpoint just who or what she is, is in for a hard time. I don’t mean an unpleasant time, far from it. It’s just that more than most people, she’s just hard to pigeonhole, buttonhole, put in a bottle, pin to the wall.
“I don’t do regular theater,” she says. “There isn’t a linear line that takes you from here to there, there isn’t even an explanation, and something satisfying that makes you feel better.”
What happens is that Smith disappears, and she does it in a way that seems so effortless that you hardly know it happens. Something similar—but also sharply different—happens in a phone conversation, where you don’t have to worry so much about props, looks, physicality. The voice has its reasons.
In her trademark plays about Crown Heights and Los Angeles, Smith created a whole world out of smoke and fire, out of nothing at all on a stage. You could hear things that weren’t being heard, street noises, crowd noises as individuals tried to make themselves heard. And each voice, each person that she became, was an individual, anguished, angry, and amazing. She did it with a piece of prop, a piece of clothing, a way of talking and walking, a hitch in the voice, and the stage, in an instant was transformed. But you always knew where you were—crazy LA, turbulent Crown Heights. The bigger stuff was going on all around.
In Let Me Down Easy, it’s all big. It’s life and death, sickness and health, body and mind. “I think the play is right in the moment, of course,” she said. “It’s about people who deal with the health system—our health system, with doctors, with the delivery – or not – of care. It’s about people who deal with their imminent death; it’s about people who care for other people. It’s about athletes and how they deal with their bodies. So, I suppose people will say it’s my take on health care, because that’s what’s going on now, intensely so, and that’s fine, I want people to think about that. But that’s not all it is.”
Let Me Down Easy, a bluesy phrase with so much tender anxiety in it that it sets the tone for the whole show, isn’t preachy; nobody says, well, this is wrong, or why is the system so screwed up, or what’s wrong with this country. Not really. It’s a little bit of a mess in fact, because it works differently than some of her other plays. It builds into a kind of a journey where you don’t always seem to know where you’re headed but when you’ve arrived at the end, you’re floored, pinned to the mat, “finished”, to quote a last line.
“With all my work I do hundreds of interviews, talk to a lot of people, and I make my choices from what they say, it’s their words, the people, who instruct me how I want to play them,” she said. “It’s not magic, it’s not easy, but it’s always rich.”
In Let Me Down Easy, reactions have invariably included some complaints about the “c” word — the period presence of celebrities from Lance Armstrong, the uber-athlete overcoming the disease, Eve Ensler, she of The Vagina Monologues, supermodel Lauren Hutton, and, because she was so well known, the late Governor of Texas Ann Richards, as well as the late ABC Television movie critic Joel Siegel, the later two harrowing examples of people who do not make it through that worm-hole we call cancer.
She bristled a little about the criticism. “It’s not about the celebrities,” she said. “They happen to be people who are informative by way of example, wit, and experience. Hutton and Ensler show us how fixated we are about body images. Armstrong is both a successful athlete and cancer survivor and the rodeo rider and boxer are painful examples of the endurance, and pain that goes with being any sort of athlete.”
Listening to her talk about the people she’s portrayed, you get a sense of what she really is about. She is a huge admirer of Walt Whitman, and knew (and portrayed) Studs Terkel, the great, crusty, people ingester and interviewer from Chicago. “I wanted in the beginning and still do to explore America, like Whitman, like Terkel,” she says. “This is an ongoing thing, a long-term project, and everything I do is about that. I called it “On The Road: A Search for The American Character”. “The goal,” she said, “is to interview as many people as possible. The process is to put yourself into other shoes, to listen, to empathize, and to take them in.”
Jack Kroll of Newsweek has said that she is “the ultimate impressionist. She does people’s souls.”
It’s as good a description as any. She herself seems to me to be elusive in the process. I don’t think she ever stops wondering about every person she meets. There is a little something witchy about her, smoke and mirrors. She is an actress, after all, and we know her from television as the no-nonsense National Security Adviser on “The West Wing” and on “Nurse Jackie”. She teaches, she writes, and all of it seems to be done in the service of a kind of quest, to find a kind of salve for the great wounds done to both people and individuals. Somewhere in Let Me Down Easy, something—the doctor working at a charity hospital in New Orleans during Katrina or the fate of orphans in South Africa, or Ann Richards’ laughter – will stay with you as if you dreamed it all.
In the course of the interview, we ended up talking a lot, me about me, my background as a child in the aftermath of the war in Germany, stories you share. Somewhere in there she asked me a question about all that, a question straight to the heart of it all. It surprised me. I could have talked for hours. I expect this is what she does, all the time, to everyone.
She let me, if not down, off easy.