Anna Deavere Smith focuses on the human story
Anna Deavere Smith, a walking democracy in disguise as a solo performance artist, has made her theatrical career soliciting viewpoints on land-mine topics. Contention and controversy present themselves to her as opportunities to explore what is unknown or improperly understood about issues that provoke more cable-news apoplexy than enlightened discussion.
“Let Me Down Easy,” her timely and deeply stirring documentary collage now at the Broad Stage through July 31, tackles a subject no less divisive than her two most acclaimed works, “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992" and “Fires in the Mirror,” both of which investigated racially charged episodes of urban unrest. The topic this time around is healthcare, but before you tune out in fear of having to relive those pitched partisan battles about insurance reform, let me clarify that Smith is more interested in what unites us rather than in what divides us.
In these rancorously ideological times, public debate has come to resemble a schoolyard brawl, in which opposing sides, taking pride in their stubbornness, taunt and jeer each other until they’re hoarse. Smith, who might want to consider serving as an emergency mediator in the congressional standoff over the debt crisis, sees no point in throwing gasoline on incendiary conflicts. Her artistic mission is a corrective to the sensationalizing media: She looks beyond the roiling headlines and focuses instead on the human story so easily lost in the political shuffle. In this way, she makes the abstract personal and turns private concerns into a communal matter.
Death is never far from her thoughts, though the mood is rarely grim. Transforming herself into her wide-ranging interview subjects through modest adjustments to her outfit and speech, Smith inquires into all aspects of our physical existence, eliciting commentary not just from those grappling with grave illness but also from athletes and daredevil types who challenge their bodies to transcend limits. There’s plenty of discussion about the medical mess we now find ourselves in, but in keeping with her open-minded approach, the voices of individuals are allowed to soar above the din of platform zealots and remind us of our collective condition and vulnerability.
This is the third time I’ve seen “Let Me Down Easy,” which has been touring the country to great acclaim, and each encounter with the work (the first was at New York’s Second Stage Theatre and the second was just last spring at San Diego’s Lyceum Stage) has been a freshly profitable experience. Smith has apparently been tinkering with the script, composed from verbatim transcripts of interviews she has conducted and edited. But it’s the richness of the material and the subtle fluctuations in her performance that account for the production’s lasting crispness.
The words that resonated most for me at Friday’s opening-night performance at the Broad belonged to Philip Pizzo, dean of Stanford University School of Medicine. Smith, looking dour in a doctor’s coat and adopting a cautionary tone to her oratory, voices Pizzo’s fears that “we are slipping into a healthcare system” that increasingly resembles “that of a developing nation,” one in which the haves and have-nots are divided by their access to adequate doctors and hospitals.
But what troubles Pizzo the most is our denial of death. How can we make decisions about the “rationing and regulation” of healthcare, which all parties know must take place no matter what they tell their constituencies, if we’re reluctant to acknowledge the limits of medical science? In other words, before we can have a grown-up conversation about healthcare costs, which are snowballing exponentially for end-of-life care, we have to accept some hard facts about mortality.
“Let Me Down Easy,” which was inspired by Smith’s experience as a visiting professor at the Yale School of Medicine, seeks to contribute to this maturing process. The production, directed by Leonard Foglia, deploys its testimonies not to score policy points but to raise consciousness.
There are inspiring tales of recovery (from cancer survivor and seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, among others) and equally inspiring accounts of valiant fights (by former Texas Gov. Ann Richards and movie critic Joel Siegel). Hospital horror stories (a mother recollects her HIV-infected daughter’s dialysis mishap) are set besides more lighthearted moments (supermodel Lauren Hutton’s chattily recounts the great doctors that came as an unexpected perk with her lucrative Revlon contract).
Palliative care physician Eduardo Bruera observes that it is “not plausible to turn dying into a picnic.” As he puts it, we’re simply “not built to assume with a smile the end of our lives.” But that doesn’t mean that an ostrich-like position is the only option. The late Rev. Peter Gomes from Harvard makes the case for “taking death seriously” so that we may more fully embrace the “precious” gift of life.
This community of voices harmonizes into a collective wisdom that may not supply many answers but encourages us to ponder more profound questions — for example, how well does our healthcare system reflect our vaunted democratic values? Illness has a way of throwing into relief the economic disparities in our society, as Dr. Kiersta Kurtz-Burke devastatingly points out in her account of caring for patients at Charity Hospital in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. And, like it or not, we’re all implicated.
Smith wants us to feel the injustice not from a political but from a human perspective. Which is perhaps why she leaves the U.S. toward the end of the piece to spend a little time at South Africa’s Chance Orphanage, where the director, Trudy Howell, shares stories of youngsters with AIDS confronting premature deaths.
What do these children, who have already lost so much, want to know at the end of their lives? They wonder whether they will be allowed to return to the orphanage to visit with the woman who stood by them at their final hour.
“You will always be in my heart, even if you’ve passed away,” Howell assures them. “You’re always in my heart and you’re always with me.”
This image of compassionate honesty is worth bearing in mind as the politicos gear up for the next boisterous chapter in our country’s never-ending healthcare debate. Let us hope they let us down easy.