Anna Deavere Smith has, in essence, combined a career doing serious, interview-based theater work like "Fires in the Mirror" and "Twilight: Los Angles" with more lucrative acting gigs on TV shows like "The West Wing" and, currently, "Nurse Jackie." Watching her perform for — and rev up — a couple of thousand nurses in Chicago Friday night, though, suggested that Smith might well be a good leftist candidate to run for office. Few think of her that way. Perhaps they should.
At one point in the colossal main ballroom at the Sheraton Hotel and Towers — packed to the gills with members of National Nurses United — Smith persuaded the assembled nurses to stand, find three or four fellow nurses they did not know, look each nurse in the eye and say to each one in turn, "We need you to heal this country."
"I believe that nurses have a power that we have not even begun to tap into in America," Smith shouted from the stage, as her congregants did as she had bid, affecting a style somewhere between political agit-prop and evangelistic ferment.
The nurses present were hardly apolitical — National Nurses United had just held a rally in downtown Chicago at which they campaigned for a so-called Robin Hood Tax on banks and financial institutions, with the proceeds going to health care and education. That said, Smith's impassioned evocation of their profession as American healers on a much broader level was clearly a new way of thinking for many in the room, many of whom watched wide-eyed, heads constantly turning to look at their fellow nurses, en masse and all around them, with a woman who plays a nurse on TV firing up the huge room.
"My nurses were so moved," Karen Elwood, a member of the California Nurses Association, would say after Smith was done. "Really, this was the first time most of them ever had experienced anything like this."
Although there was some material commissioned for this show — which went by the title of "Tell Me Where It Hurts" — much of Smith's performance was taken from her existing, if relatively new, piece "Let Me Down Easy" (already performed in Washington but not yet seen in Chicago), which is about the health care system and its failings and is composed of interviews with such groups as patients, doctors and, of course, nurses.
Smith understandably concentrated here on the last of those groups, telling, with her typical immersive sense of character, of a nurse who left her profession because she had "too big a heart" to stay among the failings of her American industry. There was talk of lost records, insensitive residents, patients kicked out of hospitals for financial rather than medical reasons (at such moments, the ballroom would fill with the sound of hissing nurses). The stories of frontline nurses make great material for artistic miners like Smith, not least because they constantly witness the line between life and death and understand how and why you might end up on one side or the other.
But the uber-text of this unusual performance in Chicago was that America was diseased by healthcare inequity and nurses, members of a sacred profession of healers, must rise up in service of those most vulnerable.
"Tell me where it hurts? I'll tell you were it hurts,' Smith said, her voice roaring from the stage. "It hurts when you see how privilege works ... and when poor people die."