Anna Deavere Smith’s Let Me Down Easy represents a departure from the typical tone and trajectory of her “On the Road” cycle of monologues. Smith established her talent in the early ‘90s, after many years working in regional theatres, as an artist/anthropologist who interviews people in community settings and then performs their words verbatim. She argues that people’s language and their voices—their syntax, their inflections, the rhythm of their words and their cadence—reveal their character, and that through meticulously recreating their speech acts in the context of often vexed or conflictual community relations, something of the larger character of America is also revealed.
Smith’s first major success, Fires in the Mirror, for instance, addressed the civil strife between the African American and Chasidic communities of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, after the chief rabbi’s motorcade inadvertently hit and killed a young black boy named Gavin Cato.Smith spent time in Crown Heights interviewing people about the incident, all of whom were involved to varying degrees and spoke from opposing points of view. She also interviewed people who simply shared a unique perspective on the tension, including Al Sharpton and Cornel West.
Smith channeled the voices of all the people she interviewed through her own body and vocal impersonations, editing the time she spent with each one into a meaningful bite of sound and then weaving them into a tapestry of character and viewpoints on the central conflict. Smith doesn’t presume to “become” any of these (real) characters. Conventional actors typically ask the audience to suspend its disbelief while they make interior emotional connections that allow them to identify psychologically with the fictional character. Smith works from the outside in, mimicking the complexity of individual language and voice as a way to reveal something human, surprising, and true about people we might suspect of being stereotypical and predictable.
In her second large-scale piece, Twilight, LA, Smith brought a similar anthropological outlook to the civil uprising in Los Angeles after local courts returned a “not guilty” verdict to the police officers accused of beating Rodney King for a traffic violation. For Twilight, Smith’s interviews ranged across and among an even larger community of people, as the Los Angeles uprising crossed community lines and included African Americans, Latinos, Asians and Asian Americans, and white people as subjects with keen perspectives on the events. In a nuanced reference, “Twilight” refers both to the liminal moment between day and night, the in-between time in which crisis perhaps gives rise to social change, and to the gang member whom Smith interviewed as part of the palate of citizens whose perspectives enlightened her and her audiences about the LA events.
Subsequent productions never quite gelled as much as these notable, groundbreaking earlier works. House Arrest, for which Smith interviewed various political players in Washington, DC, during the Clinton administration, felt like a demonstration of her own access to power more than it offered a trenchant view of the operative mentality of those running the nation.
Let Me Down Easy, though, breaks the mold of Smith’s work by foregoing her usual immersion in communities rife with conflict. No “us v. them” structures the play, and no sense of traditional dramatic agon pulls the show from crisis to resolution. Instead, the social crisis of the American medical establishment motivates Smith’s examination; as she notes in the program, the play began as a commission for the Yale School of Medicine. (See also the feature piece by Susan Dominus published in The New York Times MagazineSunday, October 4, 2009–on the internet September 30, 2009–at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/04/magazine/04smith-t.html?scp=2&sq=anna%20deavere%20smith&st=cse. I also wrote about an earlier version of this piece, presented at the Zach Scott Theatre in Austin, Texas, in The Feminist Spectator.)
But the people she interviews and impersonates demonstrate more subtle and complex perspectives in a social investigation that winds up addressing death, dying, and what we make of our lives before we get there more than it does the failing medical system that purports to give us care. The show, as a result, doesn’t ask the audience to take sides or to consider deeply opposing points of view, as did Fires and Twilight, but lets us muse together for 95 minutes on what defines us as human beings in the face of our inevitable demise.
The people Smith weaves together into this thoughtful human tapestry vary wildly not just by occupation and profession, geography and locale, or by their relative relationships to social power, but also in temperament and character, gender and race, class and accent, which makes each impersonation a pleasant surprise. The play’s theme doesn’t predict who Smith will consult for opinions, and the juxtapositions of speakers’ preoccupations and voices are sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, and always fascinating and compelling.
In the first six portraits alone, Smith performs James Cone, a famous African American theologian who loves to think about language and what it means to his community and provides Smith with her show’s title; Elizabeth Streb, a white post-modern dancer who accidentally sets herself on fire while performing for her female partner’s birthday party, and finds in her trauma the astonished, boastful pride of a survivor; Lance Armstrong, who sees his body as a nearly mechanical balance of weight and power that demands the most minute calibrations; Sally Jenkins, a sports writer who describes how athletes are driven to burn themselves up in the effort of exertion they make look easy; Eve Ensler, the feminist theatre artist famous for writing the now ubiquitous Vagina Monologues and the V-Day activism that supports annual readings of the play, who shares with Smith her suspicion that anorexia is a plot to rob women and girls of their power, since, as she says, it’s difficult to get much done when you’re only eating a raisin a day; and Brent Williams, an Idaho rodeo rider who wears a cowboy hat and pulls on a beer while he tells Smith about his high threshold for pain.
These characters alone provide a rich collection of stories, insights, accents, and body types.In fact, thinking back, even though Smith is costumed (by Ann Hould-Ward) only with a striped sports jacket for one person, a couple of rings for another, or a hat of some sort for a third, I can see the bull rider’s lanky height, Armstrong’s arrogant muscular slouch, Ensler’s stolid feminist force, Streb’s physical euphoria, Cone’s expansive girth and gestures, and Jenkins’ firecracker countenance and humor as clearly as I remember Smith’s white shirt and black trousers, the neutral palette onto which all these people’s personalities are painted.
In Let Me Down Easy, even more than in her earlier virtuosic performances, Smith seems to have settled in to her informants’ stories and the possibilities of what they might mean, knit together into an evening. She seems to have less of an ax to grind here, ironically. In an historical moment when health care is debated on the front page of every newspaper, and the fractious debate over public options spouts from so many lips, this show doesn’t directly engage the terms of that dispute. As a result, Smith—who vehemently protests her objectivity in productions in which it’s impossible not to presume she doesn’t take one side or the other—appears even-handed and magnanimous with her characters. She seems to enjoy playing them, speaking as them, sharing their insights. The implicit—and sometimes overt—didacticism of Fires and Twilight is absent in Let Me Down Easy.
In fact, Smith’s performance seems filled with an outsized joy, which flatters her virtuosity by almost understating her talent. Each character’s name and the title of their monologue is projected as a superscript on the frame above the stage. Smith (directed by Leonard Foglia) moves fluidly among them, reaching the final comment of each monologue that usually punctuates and often titles the idea at hand. Then she takes off the character’s defining costume piece or prop, lifts the next from the hands of a nondescript female assistant who enters and exits the stage—barefoot, like Smith—delivering each object or bit of apparel, drapes herself in its spell and launches into the spirit she inhabits next. You can see Smith in the interstices between characters. She’s a thoughtful, purposeful, precise presence, the guiding spirit of the piece who’s moved by her appreciation of the people to whom she gives voice and embodies.
Let Me Down Easy is as trenchant a political commentary as any of Smith’s shows, but because she creates an “us” or a “we” instead of the binary of conflicting “thems,” the production feels generous and forgiving, its humor poignant instead of pedantic. Points of view accumulate onstage, rather than replacing one another. The costume pieces and props that index each person literally litter the stage by the play’s end, as each character is haunted by those preceding him or her. The collection of things points to a collectivity of people and perspectives that’s oddly comforting. The show is about death and dying, loss and grief, but also about how we live in the meantime. As each character Smith performs eats, drinks, smokes, and chats, we see people extremely different from one another nonetheless sustaining themselves in simple, basic ways that seem familiar and communal.
Smith had a head cold the afternoon I saw one of the last preview week performances (September 30, 2009). Because she removed the same blue hanky from her pocket to blow her nose as she performed several different characters, it seemed as though they all shared the same cold, an inadvertent but moving coincidence. The gesture also made it easy to remember Smith’s presence, although in this show, she doesn’t seem to want us to forget that she’s there, mediating these stories, providing the vehicle that drops each character into our lives and carries them too quickly back out.
The beautifully crafted production offers a lovely backdrop to Smith’s impersonations. The spare set (by Riccardo Hernandez) includes a modern white couch and coffee table stage right, offset by a white dinner table and chairs stage left, at which several characters take their meal. The warm, intimate setting is framed by five tall screens/mirrors that tilt from the top over the set, vaguely diffusing what spectators see reflected. Sometimes, Smith is seen live in the mirrors, although her image is swirled by some surface distortion; other times, Smith’s character is projected onto the surface as though he or she is looking into a camera. The woody, golden aura is sculpted by subtle, architectural light (by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer), and a soft soundscape textures the play’s aural mood.
The Wednesday matinee audience with whom I watched the play seemed to appreciate Smith’s observations and insights, and she spoke directly to them under the guise of character. Her impersonation of the now late, former governor of Texas, Ann Richards, who nonchalantly describes how she has to preserve her “chi” for herself is a memorable crowd-pleaser, but spectators also responded enthusiastically to the lesser-known characters. Ruth Katz, a patient at Yale New Haven Hospital whose file is lost through staff ineptitude, garnered particular appreciation, as did the plight of physician Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, describing how she waited to be rescued with her patients at Charity Hospital in New Orleans after Katrina hit, and her dawning realization that no one really did care about the poor, elderly people of color for whom she cared.
Toward the play’s end, a few of the monologues seem superfluous, although thinking back, I can’t imagine Let Me Down Easy without any one of the stories. But the 95 minutes feel a bit long by the end, the stories a bit repetitive, even in their differences. Or maybe it’s that the string of tales makes your heart a bit too tender to bear the narratives for much longer.
The penultimate monologue, Trudy Howell’s story about a dying young girl in an orphanage in South Africa who packs her suitcase to go off to see her already deceased mother, leaves an indelible image. Likewise, Smith ends the play performing a Buddhist monk, who demonstrates how life finally runs out by overturning a full tea cup into his palm and letting the liquid pool on the stage floor as the lights around Smith turn green and deep blue.
Let Me Down Easy does justice to its title and to its audience, delivering us into the pointed grace of its ending.
The Feminist Spectator