Anna Deavere Smith on life, death and language

Anna Deveare Smith
Anna Deveare Smith (Mary Ellen Mark)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 4, 2011; 3:38 PM

Anna Deavere Smith - Baltimore native, award-winning playwright, professor, author and self-described clown - has listened to 320 people on three continents tell their stories of health-care crises, of managing cancer treatments, of receiving inept care, of trying to rescue others and of realizing they were going to die. Smith began these conversations in the late 1990s at the request of Yale University's medical school and has turned them into a one-woman show, "Let Me Down Easy," which begins its national tour this week at Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater.

Smith has won renown for her roles in movies, on stage and on television, including as the tough national security adviser on "The West Wing" and currently as the ER administrator on "Nurse Jackie." But it is her documentary-like one-person productions that have earned her the most acclaim. Re-creating conversations verbatim in these plays, Smith has received Pulitzer Prize and Tony nominations and an Obie Drama Desk Award. In "Let Me Down Easy," she becomes Lance Armstrong, a former Yale medical school administrator, theater reviewer Joel Siegel (who died of colon cancer) and a Texas rodeo bull rider telling their stories of how the American health-care system works. Smith recently discussed the show, health care, her mother's death and why she has kept her distance from Baltimore.

- Leslie Tamura

How did this project get started?

The Yale School of Medicine wrote me a letter inviting me to interview doctors and patients, and present a performance at medical grand rounds - which is usually about science. They were trying to improve [patient-doctor] relationships in an era when many, many things took doctors away from the very thing they came to medicine for: to take care of the patient. It took me a couple years to decide to do it, because I was intimidated by the whole idea of presuming I had anything to offer doctors. I'm a clown, an actor: What do I know about science?

I think I was very ambivalent about being around illness and being around the possibility of death. A lot of things hadn't happened in my life yet - my mother was still alive, friends had not died - and in the course of that time, my mother has died, people close to me have died. So I'm kind of glad that I did decide to embark on the project, because it gave me a lot of ways of understanding the inevitability that we are vulnerable and that the rumor is true: We're going to die.

How did you pick the characters in this play?

My process is that I interview people, and after I do a lot of that work, I look through and decide on which of these people I would like to perform in the play . . . and actually performing people before I make the decision. That's a lot of labor that never sees the light of day.

The overall project has been about the vulnerability of the body, resilience of the spirit and the price of care. So I was looking at the human side of the story - which is unfolding politically - about how people have confronted the challenges that they have, that we all have. The heroes of the play are those who really put themselves out to take care of the most vulnerable people and understand what it means to be vulnerable - because of disease, because you're poor, because you're the wrong color.

If [the play] promotes anything, it promotes human kindness. The bottom line is, let's figure out a way to take care of each other.

Were you interested in health care before?

No, no. I think there was something about me that honestly I was nervous about being around sick people. Why? Because it reminds you that you could be sick, that you're going to die. But when I did a whole lot of interviews for something they commissioned me to do, I would literally get high from just talking to one person after another because of how much they knew.

How has this project influenced your opinions of health care?

When my mother was dying of kidney failure in Baltimore at Johns Hopkins Hospital, I was glad to have been working on this project.

Even though I've been around the world and I've taught [drama] at Stanford for 10 years, I'm a [performance studies] professor at NYU - I have distinctions that would have made me think I have a certain amount of confidence - but in the face of those rude doctors, that all went away.

I may as well have been the same girl who left Baltimore when I was 16 to go to college. Actually, I'll go further: I may as well have been that same, unsure Negro girl in the face of those arrogant white doctors at Hopkins than the person who has made her own way.

And I was shocked at that, that I could be intimidated by that.

So it helped me to frankly knock them down a few notches and to have a sense of the dignity of my mother's struggle and my dignity as someone who cared about her.

I am lucky: I have fantastic doctors and a fantastic dentist. But if I have to go to a new doctor and someone in their office is rude and half-awake and slovenly, at least inside I know that's not acceptable. I don't say anything, but [working on this play] helps me in a vulnerable moment.

But it's not just the responsibility of the doctor?

We would like doctors to listen, but the fact is, we better be ready to be able to talk to them. You're going to have to be an active participant in that conversation, so I'd say the American people are going to need ways of stepping up to the conversation. So when I talk about the caring doctor, the listening doctor, the doctor who touches, I'm not expecting that, but I do think that . . . there's a different kind of engagement that will be required, and [the younger] generation will certainly be more prepared to engage that way. You can't just show up on the gurney and expect people to take care of you.

What's your advice to future health-care professionals thinking about getting into this field?

I have a lot of optimism about new doctors because I think it's really clear that it's a lot of hard work and no guarantee of a lot of money. I don't think people cavalierly are going into medicine right now. I don't know the statistics, but I bet you a different crop of people are coming to medical school than would have gone 30 years ago.

What characters resonate with you personally?

The notion that I can identify with a character, and therefore can be them, is a spiritual dead end. I don't believe that I'm inside of Hamlet and therefore I'm Hamlet. Each of the people in this play have something to say that they would go to the mountaintop and scream, and I just happened to be there and heard it.

You're from Baltimore; what's it like to come home?

I made a real specific decision when I came out of school and most artists were writing about home - if you were a woman, you were writing about being a woman - and I decided not to do that, write about what you know. That's not what I do. I went as far away from home as possible in terms of the development of my imagination. [For example, one character in the play is a rodeo cowboy, and] if there's anybody who is like so far from Baltimore, it's a Republican, right-wing, white, rodeo bull rider. And maybe because I found him, and because I love him and we still talk on the phone, and because I get to play him every night, I think I am now ready to go home and to get a handle on Baltimore and to do something there. I wouldn't be shocked if, after being on the road in search of America for almost 30 years, my next project doesn't ultimately take me home.

But to the people of Baltimore, to learn more about the people my mother was teaching . . . . She taught really, really, really, poor kids in areas of Baltimore I was not allowed to go to unless I was taken. And she would bring boys home who were 13 and who couldn't read in sixth grade. She would sit them down at the dining room table and insist that they were not going to leave sixth grade without reading. So that is also home, to go back and look at what is going on there and to learn more about it.

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