By Lonnie Burstein Hewitt
There’s nobody quite like Anna Deveare Smith, an award-winning actress/playwright who creates unforgettable performances by channeling the essence of real people caught up in contemporary crises. Alone onstage, she gives vibrant, theatrical substance to multiple points of view. “Documentary theater” is a cold way of describing the experience she shares with her audience.
As Bill Moyers, who interviewed her on his television Journal, said: “She turns a houseful of strangers into an intimate community.” As Smith herself said, she’s in search of the “spooky truth.”
Her latest project, “Let Me Down Easy,” deals with the current health care conundrum, and presents 20 characters chosen from some 300 people she interviewed during an 8-year period, including doctors and patients, athletes and actors, and a broad range of winners and losers in the game of Life and Death.
The show’s origins go back to 2000, when Smith was invited to the Yale School of Medicine to create a performance about how patients and doctors communicate. Smith’s stint as a Visiting Professor made her realize how much more could be revealed of the ways we take of ourselves and each other.
This is not just a show about health care. It’s a fascinating look at particular bodies and spirits, and like all of Smith’s plays, it’s about the importance of paying attention to what people say. “Let Me Down Easy” comes to us thanks to a grand collaboration of theaters: locally, San Diego REP, La Jolla Playhouse, and Vantage Theatre, and further away, Second Stage in New York, where the current version of the show originated, and Arena Stage in Washington D.C., which launched this year’s national tour.
Vantage, the smallest of the theaters, started the local ball rolling. Artistic director Dori Salois (a longtime La Jolla resident who is active in the health care community) had known Smith way back when.
“We were actors together, in a show off-off-Broadway, where we had to do speeches about our experiences in theater. Anna did an interview with a casting director that even then showed what a powerhouse she was. Later on, she said, ‘You should produce me!’ and I always thought, ‘Someday!’ ”
When Salois saw “Let Me Down Easy” in New York, she knew the day had come. She went to Sam Woodhouse, artistic director of the REP, who could fit the show into his season, but not his budget. So he went to Christopher Ashley, artistic director of La Jolla Playhouse. Within a week, discussions were underway.
Woodhouse said the collaboration has been complex, but rewarding.
“This is an extremely provocative and important piece of American theater, and with a little help from our friends, we’re able to bring it here,” he said. “We’ve always been interested in partnerships, they are a smart, synergistic way to do business.”
Chris Ashley agreed. “Every show we’re doing this season is in partnership with a different organization. We think it’s the key to making San Diego an arts destination, and I jumped at the chance to work with Anna again.”
Ashley had directed Smith in “Fires in the Mirror,” her 1992 piece about the explosion of racial tension in a Black and Jewish Brooklyn neighborhood that won him an award for Outstanding Direction, and the play an Obie award.
“Let Me Down Easy” is Smith’s newest addition to her series of plays exploring the American character, which also includes “Twilight, Los Angeles, 1992” about the riots after the beating of Rodney King. She has written books and articles, she’s been featured in films like “The American President” and “The Human Stain,” and she’s had major television roles in “Nurse Jackie” and “The West Wing,” but it’s her work in theater that has won her the most acclaim, including a MacArthur “genius” grant.
Like “Twilight” and “Fires in the Mirror,” “Let Me Down Easy” will eventually be aired on PBS-TV. But there’s nothing like seeing true genius, live and in person, onstage.
If you go
“Let Me Down Easy,” one-woman show conceived, written and performed by Anna Deavere Smith
Matinees, evenings; April 27-May 15
Lyceum Stage, San Diego REPertory Theatre, Horton Plaza, downtown San Diego
Pre- and post-show discussions with community leaders about health care issues. See website for details.