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Vol. LXIII, No. 4
February 18, 2011

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‘The Richest Trip’
Playwright Conducts Own ‘Study’ of Health Care, Reveals Results in Performance

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It was as though Anna Deavere Smith had taken a grand tour of health care and brought back slides to share. Only instead of the usual quaint travel landscapes, the images Smith captured were 3D—actual people who talked and gestured. The characters she met laughed and sighed. One ranted and another even told off-color jokes—right on stage in Masur Auditorium. And each one sounded unique, but looked exactly like the performer who embodied them.

A playwright who’s also acted on stage and screen for some 40 years, Smith said she’s been searching for American characters since the 1970s. For her latest project—Let Me Down Easy, a one-woman play that she’s written and is taking on nationwide tour—she did 320 interviews on 3 continents. The total production—perhaps a drama/documentary hybrid with doses of humor—consists basically of Smith armed with a microphone. She uses no costumes or props to speak of, although one character in particular seemed quite comfortable with bottle in hand, occasionally gulping great noisy swallows. Sometimes Smith is seated, but often she’s a lone figure standing centerstage in a one-sided conversation. The effect is powerful, intimate.


  On a visit to NIH, playwright Anna Deavere Smith performs excerpts from her latest play.  
  On a visit to NIH, playwright Anna Deavere Smith performs excerpts from her latest play.  

‘Organic Poems’

In theaters, Smith becomes a cast of some 20 characters, all of them somehow involved in a crisis of health, either as patient or care provider. For NIH’s audience on Feb. 3, Smith gave several excerpts from the full play, introducing us to a crude-speaking rodeo cowboy, a privileged physician working at a public hospital in one of New Orleans’s poorest sections, a no-nonsense medical school dean undergoing chemotherapy and a compassionate orphanage founder who comforts children dying of HIV/AIDS.

For about 40 minutes, we saw Smith portray a range of tender emotions, from the cowboy’s matter-of-fact perspective on extreme pain, called “Toughness,” to the doctor’s angry shock at being abandoned during Hurricane Katrina, called “Heavy Sense of Resignation.”

“I give everything a title because I really feel like people are speaking their organic poems,” Smith explained, in between characters.

Taking on the mannerisms and speech patterns of the late film critic Joel Siegel, Smith revealed the tears of a clown facing his own impending mortality. “Let me down easy,” she intoned quietly, using Siegel’s words to describe how he had envisioned a gentle hand laying him to rest at the end.

CC deputy director for clinical care Dr. David Henderson leads Smith on a tour of the Clinical Research Center. She met patients on both a pediatric and an adult care unit of the hospital. NIH director Dr. Francis Collins conducts an in-depth interview of Smith in the mode of Bravo’s Actors Studio host James Lipton.

Top, l:
CC deputy director for clinical care Dr. David Henderson leads Smith on a tour of the Clinical Research Center. She met patients on both a pediatric and an adult care unit of the hospital.

Top, r:
NIH director Dr. Francis Collins conducts an in-depth interview of Smith in the mode of Bravo’s Actors Studio host James Lipton.

Smith and Henderson on one of the CRC’s interstitial utility floors

Although it’s Siegel’s words that Smith adopted for her play’s title, it’s the sentiment on courage, as expressed by cowboy Brent Williams, that Smith said keeps pushing its way to the forefront of the work.

“We shouldn’t be able to stay on the back of a bull trying to buck you off, cuz we weigh 150 pounds and they weigh over 2,000 pounds,” she said, in his husky plain-spoken Western twang. “I think it’s determination. I think it comes from inside you what keeps you on that bull.” Then, in her own voice, “The theme of toughness runs through this whole play.”

Absorbing the World

Musicians from Thelonious Monk Institute’s Washington, D.C., campus perform. Shown are (from l) pianist Francisco Abate, bassist Callie Fosburgh, saxophonist Gabe Cano, drummer Rony Johnson, guitarist Vincent Femia and trumpeter Eric McMillan (teacher).

An actor, playwright and professor, the multi-talented Smith has also been called the ultimate impressionist. She seemed to see herself at NIH—as on her other sojourns around the world—as more the student.

“The work I’ve been doing for the last 35 years is to defy the idea that we belong in boxes and categories,” she said. “I’ve been going across the country for a long time now, with a tape recorder, interviewing people with the whole goal of putting myself in people’s words the way you would think of putting yourself in people’s shoes. I’m trying to absorb America by absorbing the words that people say to me.”

NIH director Dr. Francis Collins, who invited Smith to NIH, first heard about Smith some years ago from his mother, who was also a playwright. Collins said his mother met Smith when they both participated in a discussion group on theater in New York City. Collins’s mom—not really a fan of the Big Apple theater scene—came home nevertheless praising this young playwright who had also been on the panel.

His mom told him, “[Smith] understood what theater was all about, that it was about ideas. It was about language. It wasn’t about the big show and the fireworks and the explosions and the fancy dance number. It was about concepts. It was about appealing to people’s spirit and not just their sense of excitement.”

Introducing Smith to NIH, Collins noted, “Every generation produces a few artists who convey powerful messages that touch us with a sense of awe and wonder, but also touch us in terms of our conscience. Anna Deavere Smith is one of those treasures of this generation.”

Getting ‘People to Sing’

After the performance portion of the program, two chairs and a makeshift coffee table were brought onstage, reminiscent of the simple set for Bravo network’s interview show, Actors Studio. Collins, serving as host, put several questions to Smith about her craft, how she chose health care as a topic and what she hopes will result.

“I’m trying to get people to sing,” she said, describing how she approaches folks, gathering the characters she ultimately inhabits. “I’m trying to get them to do interesting verbal things without my having to do anything, because then I know it’s real. I know it’s organic. I want them to reveal themselves to me through language, through the sounds they make.”

Smith acknowledged several misgivings, panicky hours before she embarked on what was essentially a world tour as a scientist, recruiting study subjects for later in-depth emotional examination.

“What am I doing? This is going to be so upsetting. This is going to be so depressing,” she worried aloud, consulting with counselors and advisors just prior to her departure for Rwanda, South Africa and Uganda. That’s not how it turned out, though.

“It was the richest trip,” she recalled. “You know this better than I do. When people are vulnerable is when they’re the most generous. Haven’t you learned this? That some of the people who have the most, the richest people are sometimes the least generous. And people who have the least are so much more willing to give. And people wanted to give me the story of their tragedies and they were so invested in making themselves and everything else better that it was an enormously, enormously hopeful investigation.”

Collins agreed, noting that people who are facing the greatest challenges are often in many ways the people who show the greatest courage. “We see that certainly in the medical environment here at NIH,” he said.

Adopting an individual’s unique mannerisms, gestures, dialect and speech patterns, Smith brings several characters to NIH’s Masur Auditorium stage, including a crude-speaking rodeo cowboy, a compassionate orphanage founder who comforts children dying of HIV/AIDS and the late film critic Joel Siegel, whose words became the title of Smith’s play, Let Me Down Easy.

‘The Human Side’

As for what message she wants to send, in this era of health care debate, Smith said, “I hope the play successfully reveals the human side of [the dialogue], which can otherwise be tied up and made bloodless by the necessary language of Washington. It’s necessary that it have its formalities, but we must caution ourselves against trusting that this rhetorical arena will save lives.”

She paused briefly, considering her words before adding, “This is a very important debate for us to have. We should be talking about what we’re going to do with limited resources. We should be talking about the things that disturb us, the ethical questions we have about life, about death, about how it begins, about how it ends and what we as citizens or what the government has to do about it. These are really important conversations for the people to have and I just hope as I take this play across country that it can inspire community leaders to bring people together from both sides of the aisle to hash it out. We can’t just depend on our leaders for this conversation, or the media.”

Closing the program, Collins noted that Smith had toured the Clinical Research Center and met with several NIH staffers and patients. “We’ve been captivated by what you’ve shown us in your mirror,” he said, then asked whether there was any final reflection she wanted to leave with the audience.

Smith responded that NIH had already given her a gift: an understanding that NIH has a mission and passion for it.

“I have an enormous amount of wonder whenever I see mission in action in a very materialistic time in history,” she concluded. “When I go places, a lot of people want to know what I hope they take away [from seeing the performance]. I hope you don’t mind, but [this time] I’m the one with the takeaway. I hope you don’t feel robbed. I’m taking away the charge to find mission in my work as an artist and I can’t thank you enough.” NIHRecord Icon


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