Let Me Down Easy
Conceived, written, and performed by Anna Deavere Smith
Directed by Leonard Foglia
Limited Season · Roda Theatre
May 28–July 10, 2011
Encore Performances · Thrust Stage
August 10–September 4, 2011
Running time: 1 hour and 40 minutes, no intermission
She set the Bay Area ablaze with Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles. In recent years, you’ve seen her on The West Wing and Nurse Jackie. Now Anna Deavere Smith returns to Berkeley Rep with her latest theatrical hit. Let Me Down Easy examines the body and the body politic, as only Anna Deavere Smith can. Using her unique performance style, she introduces you to a rodeo rider, a prize fighter and an altruistic doctor—as well as legendary cyclist Lance Armstrong, supermodel Lauren Hutton and former Texas Governor Ann Richards. Together, their voices tell a stunning story about the vulnerability of the human body, the resilience of the spirit and the price of care. “Run—do not walk,” says NBC’s Today show—to see the latest work from this unparalleled performer as she makes her first Bay Area appearance in 15 years.
Anna Deavere Smith · Writer
Leonard Foglia · Director
Riccardo Hernandez · Scenic Design
Ann Hould-Ward · Costume Design
Dan Ozminkowski · Lighting Design (based on design by Peggy Eisenhower and Jules Fisher)
Ryan Rumery · Sound Design
Joshua Redman · Original Music Elements
Zachary Borovay · Projection Design
Amy Stoller · Dialect Coach
Elizabeth Roxas-Dobrish · Movement Coach
Anthony Dickey · Hair Design
Maria Verel · Makeup Design
Alisa Solomon · Dramaturg
Kimber Riddle · Artistic Associate
Keturah Stickann · Assistant Director
Michael Thomas · Associate Movement Coach
Joseph Smelser · Stage Manager (May 28–July 10)
Cynthia Cahill · Stage Manager (August 10–September 4)
Ronee Penoi · Assistant Stage Manager (May 28–July 10)
Karen Szpaller · Assistant Stage Manager (August 10–September 4)
Marcos Najera · On-stage Dresser
Ron Cameron · Road Carpenter
Alex Bright · Projection Technician
Maruti Evans · Assistant Set Design
M. Florian Staab · Assistant Sound Design
Lisa Anne Porter · Local Dialect Coach
Alex Marshall · Video Operator
Anna Deavere Smith
“Extraordinary…This is Smith at the top of her unique documentary theater form, in writing, performance and timeliness. As she did in her landmark 1990s ‘riot’ plays—Fires in the Mirror (about the Crown Heights riots in Brooklyn) and Twilight: Los Angeles—Smith picks a topic, conducts numerous interviews and weaves excerpts from a dozen or more into a compelling, multifaceted dramatic exploration…The result is pure theatrical gold and something more—a topic of vital interest looked at from so many different angles that it can’t help but advance the conversation.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“Remarkably uplifting…Let Me Down Easy fascinates, compels and ultimately moves us as Smith gives voice to bodies and minds involved in life-and-death struggles…She has the instincts and drive of a journalist, the performance style of a skilled thespian and the soul of a poet striving for grace…You leave the theater feeling nourished and provoked.”—Theater Dogs
“Dazzling…a mind-blowing 105-minute, one-woman show. While some actors lose their laser-sharp edge after taking TV gigs, Smith remains at the top of her craft…Certainly the Pulitzer nominee raises the bar for herself in terms of distilling complex ideas, from the politics of class to the relationship between death and culture, into tiny little vignettes that resonate with a universe of nuance. Smith invites us to attend a town hall of one where she channels a chorus of 20 voices that seem to speak for us all.”—San Jose Mercury News / Bay Area News Group
Prologue: from the Artistic Director
All great artists have a touch of clairvoyance: an ability to penetrate the surface of reality and reveal what lies beyond, something that remains hidden to the vast majority of people. These artists seem to literally see the world differently, and they have the technical and creative capacity to translate what they see. Whether their canvas is a stretched piece of muslin or the pages of a novel or a bare stage, they are able to widen the lens on our experience, making the world that much larger.
Anna Deavere Smith is one of these artists. Driven by her profound interest in the history we carry and the history we make, she probes the crevices and creases of our behavior to reveal larger social patterns. Her methodology is rigorous and complex: she selects an event or a topic, then proceeds to conduct hundreds of interviews with people who hold wildly divergent viewpoints. Academicians and blue-collar workers, liberals and conservatives, people of every race, creed and color…she refuses to stop until she feels grounded, confident that the views represented will provide a three-dimensional portrait of her subject. Armed with that confidence, she then selects and creates a composite of characters that will engage us on every level. The result is an exhilarating, multifaceted dialogue: first with herself, then with her characters and, finally, with us.
Tonight’s show is about our health-care system. The 20 characters we meet are immediately recognizable, not because we know them personally, but because we can relate to their stories. After all, we may have very different opinions about the system, but we’re all patients. We all know what it’s like to deal with illness and doctors and prescription drugs, paperwork and insurance—and the fear, frustration and helplessness that so often accompany that experience. We’ve all watched the vitriolic debate about health-care reform that continues to polarize our country. Anna Deavere Smith allows us to pull our personal cameras back a bit, to see a larger picture, to be touched by stories of people we don’t know but who we understand. To remember that we’re all in the same life raft. Headed to the same destination…all in need of healing.
Prologue: from the Managing Director
A few weeks ago, members of our Teen Council participated in a phone call with Kalpen Modi, the associate director of the White House’s Office of Public Engagement, who is conducting conversations with teenagers across the country as part of the President’s “100 Youth Roundtables.” He is investigating what is on the minds of America’s young people for a report he is preparing for the President’s Council on Domestic Policy.
Mr. Modi got an earful! Long before his call, our Teen Council had been training for just such a moment. With funds for arts education under threat at the state and federal levels, our teens had been researching policy issues, building their own arguments for support and hosting practice sessions for meetings with their elected officials. Last month they paid a visit to Senator Dianne Feinstein’s office in San Francisco and had a meeting with staff members for Congresswoman Barbara Lee. And that is just the beginning of their plans.
Why, one might ask, would Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Teen Council expend time and energy on political action? The answer goes straight to the heart of our goals for the School. Some of the young people who come through our doors have certainly discovered that they have a gift for acting or directing or producing, and their participation in the Council has helped them find their calling in life. That delights us. But our greater purpose, echoed in the work we do on our stage every day, is to foster creativity, to use it to engage our community in dialogue about who we are and what we care about and, in short, to contribute to a civil society. Encouraging young people to be thoughtful about their world, to use the skills we can teach them to better the world and to instill in them a desire to be activists on behalf of the issues that are important to them…those are the outcomes that make us particularly proud.
It is serendipitous that our teens are out there using their involvement with the Theatre as a springboard for their civic awakening just as we welcome Anna Deavere Smith to our stage. Anna holds a unique place in the arts for her capacity to use theatre as her tool to ignite and engage communities about issues as huge as race, religion, politics and power. With Let Me Down Easy, she again brings her passion and intellect to bear on large themes with the hope, maybe the insistence, that we leave the theatre ruminating and discussing our health, our mortality and the social systems that we’ve created to accommodate these deeply human concerns.
Understanding the American character
By Rachel Steinberg
Anna Deavere Smith has devoted her career to answering what she recognizes is an impossible question: is it possible to understand the American character? In pursuit of an answer, she’s worn an exhaustive number of hats, among them: journalist, solo performer, interviewer, television star, author and professor. She is the recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” Award, the founding director of the Institute on Arts and Civic Dialogue at Harvard University and currently the artist in residence at the Center for American Progress, a Democratic think tank.
The foundation of all Smith’s work is the art of listening. Smith observes that even from a young age in her native Baltimore she was always drawn to words. She recalls buying and delivering fatback bacon to a 400-pound, mostly immobile neighbor who, in turn, would regale her with stories. Smith’s family also provided the foundation for her love of language: her mother was a very expressive reader and storyteller, and young Anna would often ask her to repeat particularly interesting words and phrases. It was another family member, Anna’s grandfather, who would provide the most fortuitous advice: “If you say a word often enough, it becomes you.” Though the young Smith didn’t know it then, her grandfather’s words would form the basis of her signature style of theatre.
Theatre, however, wasn’t Smith’s intended career path. She entered Beaver College as a linguistics major and graduated in 1971. Bachelor of arts in hand, Smith, along with a few friends, moved west to California, seeking out what remained of the progressive, revolutionary spirit of the late 1960s. It was in an acting class at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater that a teacher asked Smith and her classmates to pick 14-line passages of Shakespeare and speak them over and over again until something happened.
Something did happen. Standing in her apartment, reciting Queen Margaret’s speech from Richard III, Smith had what she has since termed a “‘transcendental experience’…[Queen Margaret] was a small vision, standing in my apartment. She came from the same place that the tooth fairy came from when I was a child.” The experience was transformative. Smith’s grandfather’s advice had proven itself worthy: through the repetition of words, Smith was able to manifest life. Though she had all but stumbled into her first acting class, Smith was quickly realizing that she wanted to make theatre her career.
After graduating with an MFA from A.C.T., Smith moved back to the East Coast and found a job working in the complaints department of KLM Airlines, reading letters written by outraged airline passengers from all over the world. She loved her job: as she read about lost luggage and delayed passengers, she found herself once again fascinated by the language regular people used to convey their anger, their confusion, their frustration and their desire for action. It was in the KLM offices, Smith acknowledges, that she began to formulate the questions that would occupy her for years to come: “What is the relationship of language to identity? What does language, the way we render language, tell us about who we are? What does it tell us on an individual level…on a societal level?”
The project began to crystallize after an encounter with a linguist at a cocktail party. Smith was explaining that she was interested “in the moment language failed [people], the moment that they have to be more creative than they would have imagined in order to communicate. It’s the very moment that they have to dig deeper than the surface to find words, and at the same time, it’s a moment when they want to communicate very badly…it’s about finding that moment when syntax changes, when grammar breaks down. Those are the moments I should study, if I want to know who a person is.”
The linguist offered her three questions that she found frequently broke down a person’s way of speaking:
- Have you ever come close to death?
- Do you know the circumstances of your birth?
- Have you ever been accused of something that you did not do?
These questions formed the basis of Smith’s project, On the Road: A Search for American Character. Armed with a tape recorder, Smith set out to interview anyone she could, using those three questions as the basis for her conversations, hoping to find those moments where patterns in speech would break. These anomalies and in-between spaces in language and thought might be the locus of the elusive American character. In her own words, “American character lives not in one place or the other, but in the gaps between the places, and in our struggle to be together in our differences.”
In the early phase of her project, Smith enlisted the help of a small company of actors. As she would approach people, from hairdressers to grocers, for 45-minute to hour-long interviews, she would tell them, “I have an actor who looks like you, and if you give me an hour of your time, I’ll invite you to see yourself performed.” After a while, the actor-company model began to break down. Though Smith started the company as a way of raising funds for her project, it wasn’t bringing in the revenue she needed. It was in part out of necessity that she began experimenting with solo performance.
After creating over a dozen pieces for On the Road, Anna Deavere Smith caused a sensation in 1992 with Fires in the Mirror. The form of the piece was essentially the same as her others. This time, however, her focus was on a specific event: the race riots following the death of a black child in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood. Smith interviewed hundreds of people about their reactions to the riots, ranging from a preschool teacher to the Reverend Al Sharpton. Eventually she was able to narrow down her selection of subjects to 26 people. Fires premiered the same week that several officers from the Los Angeles Police Department were acquitted on charges of police brutality after the violent arrest of an African-American man named Rodney King.
The first run of Fires in the Mirror was a near sell-out, in part because of the topical immediacy. As Smith later observed, “People wanted to know about race because things had fallen apart. It wasn’t something that was allowing them to go on with their lives as usual without at least thinking. Because I believe that Americans have a conscience, like, ‘Oh my God…how could this happen in my country?’ So they wanted to know why. They came to the play.” Smith followed the success of Fires with another hit, Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. This time, she focused on the riots following the Rodney King verdict. Once again, through her detailed effort at embodying the language of others, Smith became the physical vessel for a multitude of voices.
Indeed, Smith has said that in performing her primary focus is not on learning something about herself; it’s about trying to find the other. As a result, she works painstakingly hard at transformation, playing interview recordings over and over until every tic in the speaker’s language is captured in her voice, and looking at photographs until she is able to fully and completely embody each character.
When Smith was first starting out as an actor, she recalls an agent telling her, “I can’t send you out because you don’t look like anything.” Today, Smith recognizes the irony that the very same ambiguity has likely contributed to her particular success in portraying a wide variety of characters: “My guess is it’s likely that a white person would take more heat for doing blacks. My guess is a man would seem funnier doing women than I seem doing men.”
Though Smith’s work often focuses on social issues, she does not consider herself to be an activist. The difference, for her, exists in temperament: while activists tend to take sides, Smith’s work aims to explore a variety of perspectives without judgment. As an artist, Smith believes she is in the unique position of seeing the world upside down. Unlike a politician, she has the ability to look at the world not from a place of reassurance but from a place of insatiable curiosity and an appetite for meaningful dialogue.
Smith’s reputation as an igniter of conversation and an artistic innovator has led to a number of opportunities, including teaching gigs at Stanford and Yale as well as a tenure-track professorship in the performance studies department at New York University. In 1997, Smith partnered with Harvard University to found the Institute on Arts and Civic Dialogue, bringing together artists, scholars and activists in hopes of finding “imaginative ways to convene conversations on social issues.” In April 2009, Smith joined the Center for American Progress, a Washington, DC think tank, as the artist in residence. She is using the post as a launching point for her next project, The Americans, which focuses on changes in the capital since President Obama’s election.
Smith acknowledges that she cannot ever fully embody a character, but that the “middle space” between herself and her subject is where her artistry lies. She believes that it’s her effort to “leave [herself] and be someone else,” rather than her success at doing so, that allures audiences. Once drawn in by her process, audiences begin to do what Smith herself does best: listen to each character’s unique voice. Though the words she speaks come from real people, the venue in which she brings the voices together is, to some degree, artificial. Only in a theatre can she put a bull rider in the same room as a Buddhist monk or connect a Korean grocer to Charlton Heston and the Los Angeles police chief. By juxtaposing voices against one another and giving each an equal opportunity to be heard and understood, Anna Deavere Smith turns theatres into dream town-hall meetings, creating otherwise impossible intersections of thought and experience.
Real-life portraits: The people of Let Me Down Easy
Anna Deavere Smith has compiled a catalog of some of the world’s most fascinating people. Each of their thoughts and opinions are the result of some truly amazingly lived lives. Learn more about some of the inspirations for Let Me Down Easy.
Rev. James H. Cone
Rev. James H. Cone is best known for his groundbreaking works, Black Theology and Black Power (1969) and A Black Theology of Liberation (1970). He is also the author of the highly acclaimed God of the Oppressed (1975) and Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare? (1991). A professor at Union Theological Seminary and an ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, his focus of study is Christian theology, especially black theology. His current research focuses on “The Cross and the Lynching Tree.”
Elizabeth Streb is the “Evel Knievel of dance”—an extreme dancer, choreographer and visionary. Her PopAction choreography draws on dynamic, kinetic disciplines: dance, athletics, rodeo, the circus and cinema stunt work. A recipient of the MacArthur “Genius” Award, Streb’s goal is to combine daring with precision in pursuit of “pure movement.” She holds an MA in humanities and social thought from New York University and a BS in modern dance from SUNY Brockport. In 2003, Streb established SLAM (Streb Lab for Action Mechanics) in Brooklyn. SLAM is a multipurpose space open to the public to witness rehearsals, attend performances, take classes and engage with a creative community.
The winner of seven Tour de France championships and a cancer survivor, cyclist Lance Armstrong is undeniably one of the most impressive athletes in the history of modern sports. In 1996, at age 25, Armstrong was diagnosed with testicular cancer, which had spread to his brain and lungs. After undergoing powerful cancer treatments, he overcame the disease and miraculously returned to cycling in 1997. Within two years, he won his first Tour de France and then continued to win for the next five consecutive years. In 2005, he won the tour for a seventh time and continues to hold the record for Tour de France wins. Thanks to his fame, Armstrong’s cancer foundation, LiveStrong, has become a household name and raised millions of dollars for cancer research and those affected by the disease.
Sally Jenkins is an award-winning columnist for the Washington Post and the author of eight books, most notably It’s Not About the Bike with Lance Armstrong. She received the 2002 Associated Press Columnist of the Year Award. Her work has been featured in GQ and Sports Illustrated, and she has acted as a correspondent on CNBC and NPR’s All Things Considered.
Irreverent and unapologetic creator of the now infamous Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler is a playwright, performer and activist. Ensler’s experience performing The Vagina Monologues and the rousing support and appreciation of her audiences inspired her to create V-Day, a global movement to end violence against women and girls. She is dedicated to her vision of a world in which women and girls will be free to thrive and prosper rather than merely survive. In 12 years, the V-Day movement has raised more than $75 million and reached more than 300 million people. Ensler is also the author of many other books and plays, including Insecure at Last and I Am an Emotional Creature: The Secret Life of Girls Around the World.
In October 1993, Michael Bentt surprised the boxing world with a stunning first-round victory over Tommy Morrison, earning him the title of WBO World Heavyweight Boxing Champion. Although he is the winner of four New York City Golden Gloves titles and five U.S. amateur titles, and former captain of the U.S. national boxing team, Bentt was considered an underdog in the match. His glory was shortlived, however. In March 1994, Bentt was defeated by Herbie Hide, receiving a knockout that left him in a coma for 96 hours. Although this proved to be the end of his boxing career, Bentt says, “If my getting dismantled to the point of near death in my last fight was the price I had to pay for a victory over Tommy Morrison, I’ll never question the price of success.”
Lauren Hutton created the concept of “supermodel.” In 1966, she was discovered by Vogue magazine editor Diana Vreeland, which led to a long relationship with the magazine, during which Hutton graced the cover more than 25 times. In the 1970s, Hutton negotiated an unprecedented contract with Revlon, in which Revlon products would be associated exclusively with her—making her the first million-dollar model.
Ruth J. Katz, JD, MPH
Ruth J. Katz is chief public health counsel with the Committee on Energy and Commerce in the U.S. House of Representatives. The committee has legislative jurisdiction over many domestic health programs, including Medicare, Medicaid, the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration. Before joining the committee, Ms. Katz taught at the School of Public Health and Health Services at George Washington University, serving as the dean of the school from 2003 to 2008. She has also taught at the Yale School of Medicine.
Philip A. Pizzo, MD
Dr. Philip Pizzo is recognized for his contributions as a clinical investigator, especially in the treatment of children with cancer and HIV. He is currently dean of the Stanford University School of Medicine. Before joining Stanford, he was the physician-in-chief of Children’s Hospital in Boston and chair of the pediatrics department at Harvard Medical School. In 1990, Washingtonian Magazine named Dr. Pizzo “Washingtonian of the Year” for his efforts in helping to found the Children’s Inn at NIH, a temporary home for NIH’s pediatric patients and their families.
Susan Youens, PhD
Susan Youens is considered the leading scholar of Franz Schubert worldwide. Currently teaching at Notre Dame, she is the author of seven books on the songs of Franz Schubert and Hugo Wolf, the most recent being Hugo Wolf and His Mörike Songs and Schubert’s Late Lieder: Beyond the Song Cycles. Ms. Youens has received several major grants, including four National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowships, one Guggenheim Fellowship and one National Humanities Center Fellowship.
Ann Richards (1933–2006)
“Poor George. He can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.” This wry observation about then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, delivered during the keynote address at the 1988 Democratic National Convention, demonstrates the spirited personality of this Texan politician who rose quickly to national attention. A strong advocate for minority and women’s rights (including increasing their role in the state government), Richards was the second female governor of Texas and the 39th Democratic governor to serve. Ms. Richards died of esophageal cancer in September 2006.
Joel Siegel (1943–2007)
Critic, journalist, author and playwright Joel Siegel was the film critic and entertainment editor for Good Morning America for more than 25 years. A witty and popular commentator, Mr. Siegel received five Emmy Awards over the course of his career. In 1991, he helped found Gilda’s Club, an organization that supports cancer patients and their families, named for Gilda Radner, who died of ovarian cancer. At age 54, Siegel was diagnosed with colon cancer just as he was preparing for the birth of his son. Siegel authored Lessons for Dylan: From Father to Son (2003), a book containing stories and advice he wanted his son to hear. In June 2007, Siegel lost his battle with cancer.
Matthieu Ricard is “the happiest man in the world,” a Buddhist monk, author, translator and photographer. After writing his doctoral thesis on molecular genetics at the Institute Pasteur, Mr. Ricard abandoned the scientific world to study Tibetan Buddhism. His reflections on happiness and Buddhism are the basis of his numerous books, including The Monk and the Philosopher, The Quantum and the Lotus: A Journey to the Frontiers Where Science and Buddhism Meet and Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill. He has also published books of his photographs, including Tibet: An Inner Journey. Since 1989, he has served as the French interpreter for the Dalai Lama.
Originally published by the Arena Stage. Reprinted with permission.
A search for grace
Anna Deavere Smith in conversation with Gideon Lester
Anna Deavere Smith is one of the country’s greatest writers and performers, with a unique theatrical style. Each of her productions is an investigation into questions of political and personal identity—the LA race riots in Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, the violent encounters between African-Americans and Lubavitch Jews in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in Fires in the Mirror. For each production she conducts hundreds of interviews, and then performs as the interviewees on stage, taking meticulous care to reproduce their vocal intonation and physicality. The result is a diverse and non-partisan approach to impossibly complex situations—a truly democratic interweaving of politics and theatre.
In her latest one-woman show, Let Me Down Easy, Anna takes a journey in search of human qualities that are too seldom in the news—compassion, generosity and grace.
Channeling a dramatic range of interview subjects, from artists and philosophers to health-care professionals and survivors of the Rwandan genocide, Anna Deavere Smith asks a question for our age: how do we pursue grace and kindness in a competitive and sometimes distressing world?
Gideon Lester: You’ve been developing Let Me Down Easy for more than a decade. Where did the journey begin?
Anna Deavere Smith: In 1998 I got a letter from Dr. Ralph Horwitz, who was then chair of internal medicine at Yale School of Medicine, now chair of medicine at Stanford. He asked me to come to Yale and interview doctors and patients, and to perform the interviews at the Medical School’s lecture series, known as “grand rounds.” I dodged him for almost two years, and then finally I went to Yale in 2000. Every weekend while I was at Harvard as director of the Institute on the Arts & Civic Dialogue, I’d drive to New Haven and spend Saturday in Ralph’s office, listening to stories from patients and doctors. That fall I performed at grand rounds. The speaker there is usually a scientist, and it took place in a medical amphitheatre with a blackboard behind me and a lab table in front of me, and all these doctors in there at 8am in their starched shirts and ties, annoyed that they were told to turn their beepers off. Much to my shock it was very well received. People were very moved, and it really found a way into my heart too. The patients I’d interviewed had come to see it, and it was powerful that they were there. They had an invaluable look on their faces that had nothing to do with how well I’d done; it was because they were hearing their stories in another medium. Nothing gives me a greater sense of fulfillment than that.
Why did you dodge the invitation for two years?
I thought at first it was because I didn’t want to make a fool of myself in front of smart people. Many of us are disappointed with the health-care system and with the experiences we sometimes have with doctors; however, they are incredibly educated people with a very unusual attention to detail, which is intoxicating for a person like me whose whole work is about listening. But now I understand that I was afraid of exposing myself to so many stories about illness. People’s words are saturated with their experience, and if they’re sick their language is saturated with their illness. After a weekend of interviews I’d feel physically ill.
While you’re performing, do you continue to feel a strong sense of empathy with the people you portray?
I have to be simultaneously distant and present. Much of what I’m doing on stage is technical; I’m like a singer trying to hit the right note. But the process of compiling one of these plays is long and complicated, and I can have an emotional response at many stages—during an interview, or when I’m transcribing the text, or listening to the words over and over, or learning the lines, dwelling in the lines, seeing what they mean.
How did the project continue to develop after Yale?
At that time I thought the play would be primarily about mortality and the human body. In 2002 I met Samantha Power (the foreign-policy expert), who was writing about Rwanda. She told me that if I was working on the body then I had to go there and talk to survivors of the genocide. So I went in 2005, and Samantha helped me to get set up. Rwanda was already in my heart because of an extraordinary Rwandan playwright, Hope Azeda, who had been at the Institute on Arts and Civic Dialogue. While still in Africa, my staff and I were shocked by images of Hurricane Katrina. The U.S. looked like Africa in crisis. I went to do interviews in New Orleans when I returned. The journey continued with an intensive series of interviews at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. I then had an invaluable experience at the Zachary Scott Theatre in Austin, where I presented the newly acquired material in a series of staged readings, hot off the press. By last summer, when I worked on Let Me Down Easy at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, I had an encyclopedia of interviews—doctors, patients, physicists, musicians, athletes, journalists, and on and on. I explored the material for two weeks with Long Wharf’s artistic director, Gordon Edelstein, and it was there I learned that the piece would be about life as much as death, about a search for grace. As Angie Farmer, the mother of a cancer patient in Houston, said to me, “Living—that’s what you learn from this experience. You don’t learn how to die, you learn how to live.”
Does religion play an important part in your life?
I had an extremely religious upbringing, and a very conservative Methodist background. Couldn’t dance on Sunday, couldn’t go to the movies on Sunday, that kind of thing. I am an Episcopalian, and at the moment I’m working through what my religiosity and spirituality are.
Does “grace” have a religious meaning for you?
Reverend Peter Gomes, the Minister at Harvard’s Memorial Church, describes grace as the moment when you are about to do something one way, and you realize God would want you to do it another way, and you actually go God’s way and make another choice. In his mind, grace is doing what God would have you do. He also points out that we don’t always go God’s way. To my mind, Gomes’ idea of grace requires discipline, or a change in your inherent nature and a subsequent taking of the higher ground. When I interviewed him we talked about the song “Amazing Grace,” which was written about a slaveholder who freed his slaves. The slave owner had a conversion. A notion of grace actually first came to me from listening over and over to the Adagio from Schubert’s “Quintet in C,” the Christmas after my mother died. I’m haunted by the word “grace,” because of something that happened to me during my confirmation at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. The bishop had forgotten his glasses. He was an old man, I’d have thought he’d have known the word by heart, but he started stumbling. He repeated, “God grant her…God grant her…” and he leaned over to the priest and asked, “What is this word?” And the priest said, “Grace.” That never left me, and the word became charged in my mythology. But I think of grace less as a religious concept than as a force in nature. Grace lies in a dancer trying to make a difficult movement look effortless and beautiful. My dog has an incredible amount of grace. Grace is in how we treat each other when we could choose to exert power and we find another way. Grace is related to kindness. It can be political, or social, or aesthetic. Let Me Down Easy is a great treasure hunt; I’m searching for examples of grace that I can share with the audience.
The play is also very much about healing. One of the doctors you interviewed talks about the growth of the relationship between physician and patient as a journey that two people are taking, not just one person.
Yes, I love that. That’s Asghar Rastegar, at Yale. He goes on to say that some of the most maturing events in his life have been going through a critical illness with a patient and seeing that person get over self-pity, accept and move on. He talks about how it causes him to realize that he could be that other person on the other side of the table. This also has a relationship with the theatre, because when a performance is working, someone in the audience has that kind of relationship with the least expected character, the least expected idea.
What do you hope the audience’s experience will be?
I can’t presume to say. I hope a connection happens, and I don’t really think about the “takeaway,” as they say in corporate America. I think less about what people take away than what they bring. Every member of the audience brings something into the theatre: a relationship to their body, to illness, mortality, vulnerability, resistance. It’s exciting that they bring so much into that room, where we are trying to uncover the mysteries of the human condition. I remember my friend Evelynn Hammonds, now dean of Harvard College, talking to me about science when she was a professor at MIT. She described science as “Mother Nature revealing her mysteries to you”—you have to be present and patient for them when they come forward. It’s wonderful when that happens in the theatre, and the presence of the audience is critical. Together we can discover some new mystery about how we are as humans, in that hour and a half we spend together, trying to peel away the layers of the onion. That’s what I hope happens for them, and for me.
This article originally appeared in the American Repertory Theater’s newsletter during the ART run of Let Me Down Easy.
Gideon Lester is director of the Arts Collaboration Lab at Columbia University School of the Arts.
Anna Deavere Smith introduces us to 13 real people, including legendary cyclist Lance Armstrong, supermodel Lauren Hutton and former Texas Governor Ann Richards, to tell us a stunning story about the vulnerability of the human body and the resilience of the spirit. Get a glimpse of Anna’s unique and masterful performance in this production trailer.
Introducing Let Me Down Easy
View your special invitation from Anna Deavere Smith to her latest critically acclaimed show.