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Arts & Culture

Anna Deavere Smith Takes On Health Care

Actress, playwright and journalist Anna Deavere Smith performs her one woman play "Let Me Down Easy" at the Lyceum Theater in San Diego.
Actress, playwright and journalist Anna Deavere Smith performs her one woman play "Let Me Down Easy" at the Lyceum Theater in San Diego.
Anna Deavere Smith Takes On Health Care
Anna Deavere Smith's latest one-woman play focuses on the health care industry. Smith conducted over 300 interviews for a performance in which she portrays doctors, patients, and a host of recognizable names like former Texas Governor Ann Richards and cycling champion Lance Armstrong.

Anna Deavere Smith's latest one-woman play focuses on the health care industry. Smith conducted over 300 interviews for a performance in which she portrays doctors, patients, and a host of recognizable names like former Texas Governor Ann Richards and cycling champion Lance Armstrong. We'll talk with Smith about "Let Me Down Easy," currently on stage at the Lyceum Theatre in Horton Plaza.


Anna Deavere Smith is one of the most honored women working in theater today. She's an acclaimed actress and playwright. She conceived, wrote, and performs in her new one-woman show "Let Me Down Easy.


"Let Me Down Easy" opened last night and runs through May 15th at the Lyceum Theater in Horton Plaza.

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Anyone who has seen a one woman show by actor Anna Deavere Smith comes away knowing they witnessed a very different kind of theater her subjects are the most heated issues of the day, and her performances

SMITH: I'll never forget, I was sitting in the airport, and he was talking to me on the phone about how serious the healthcare issue was for him. So I know how passionately he feels about it. 'Cause he did then. So then when the -- when it was really right on the table, I was about to go to New York, and I decided to revise my show and point it towards the actual healthcare debate, that is to say to have the show tell the human side of the story. Because I think of the language of the Washington is kind of an haute couture of language, as very very controlled. And so what I wanted to bring was a greater openness to the debate. I think that the debate is there for good reason, things that matter to all Americans across the board, regardless of what side of the isle they're on. The theater is a place where we can speak more openly. We're not as controlled as people are in the media or in politics. What I'm hoping happens here in San Diego is that people from all sides of the isle will come to see this show, and that the show itself will be an opportunity to speak about these issues in a way that's not Apolitical but is outside of the restricted way that politics tends to deal with these issues.

CAVANAUGH: Brings a lot truth and a little poetry to the politics of the issue.

SMITH: Truth, poetry, and just humanity.



SMITH: And feeling.

CAVANAUGH: You mentioned that you conducted over 300 interviews for this play, and you perform multiple characters --

SMITH: 20 of them.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: 20. How do you decide who you're gonna go out and interview?

SMITH: Well, probably not unlike the way you and your producers decide who to bring into this radio station. The world is large, there are lots of interesting people. I wept also in the course of doing this to Africa and to Germany, in Germany to interview the doctors, and some of the patients at our Ramstein air force base at [CHECK AUDIO] army hospital where a lot of army soldiers get pasted back together before they come here and get their real treatment. The question for me is not about the -- how do you get people, because I could walk outside, before I leave here, I could know five people to interview if I wanted to revise my play. It's how to decide who to put on. And for that, I would say, it's in part, every single person as let me down easy, A, is a brilliant communicator, whether it's a rodeo cow boy with a high school education, or whether it's governor Anne Richards who we all upon was a brilliant communicator. Is it all of them are brilliant communicators, and they all love something. All 20 of these people love something. And the first speaker tell you what the play's about. He say it's about love. It's about healthcare, but it's also about love. It's about love, it's about how to value your life, and the lives of the people around you, how to take care of them, and how to bring more love into your life.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you portray some of the people that we would know like model Lauren Hutton, and you mentioned former texas governor, Anne Richards. What did Anne Richards say that made you want to bring her into this?

SMITH: Well, you know, first of all issue she's the 11:00 o'clock number 'cause she has a way of just grabbing an audience. Her piece starts with her say, no, I was not the first governor of Texas. Well, in the twenties, there was Pa Fergusson was governor, and pa was married to -- ma. And pa died and ma became governor. [CHECK AUDIO] who said if the English language is good enough for Jesus Christ, it's good enough for everybody. So you need somebody like that.


SMITH: An hour and a half into the show to wake everybody up of that's number one. Number two, your audience may or may not recall that our dear Anne, the indomitable Anne [CHECK AUDIO] MD Anderson hospital, just about to get a very progressive therapy, proton therapy, and so sadly, this was in May, and we lost Anne in September.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Yes. Everybody that you speak to is connected to the healthcare industry in some way, either because they have an illness or because they're treating an illness. Or if they're treating people who are treating illness.

SMITH: Well, interesting enough that you pick that up just now, [CHECK AUDIO] hit show starring Eddie Falco [CHECK AUDIO] that you want to avoid at all costs. No, but some of the people in the play are also people who have figure prowess. Lance arm strong as we all know had cancer, but he's got an extraordinary ability, very powerful, the bull rider in the show, lost a kidney, but he's also remarkable. There's a boxer in the show. Lauren Hutton is the first super model. But she also talks, relates her relationship to healthcare. So even is sort of moving in and out of that. [CHECK AUDIO].

CAVANAUGH: We have to take a shore break. When we return, we'll continue the conversation with Anna Deavere Smith, with [CHECK AUDIO].

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. And I'm back with my guest, Anna Deavere Smith, who is in town with her one woman show, let me down easy. It's about American healthcare. It's about our healthcare debate, healthcare industry, about people affected by our healthcare system. And we have just been talking about the -- how many people you've interviewed for this show, and so forth. Okay, so when you decide to sit down with an Anne Richards or a Lauren hutton or a charity hospital in New Orleans, what kind of questions do you ask these people.

SMITH: Yeah, well, you know what? You really put your finger on one of the reasons I wanted to do this project. I mentioned to you that it started with the Yale school of medicine, and I put doctor Horowitz off for two years because I really didn't to make a fool of myself in front of doctors. At the time, I still thought like they were god, you know?

CAVANAUGH: Not so much anymore huh 1234.

SMITH: No, no no, they're just like you and me, they're human. But anyways, so the point is that I sat down, finally, when I agreed to do it with a tape recorder and I found that I only had to ask one question, particularly of patients. And it was what happened to you? And people were up telling stories! One man brought in his granddaughter who had kept a diary when he was trying to get a heart transplant. She read from the diary. To one person I said do you pray? Father! She just dropped down, started praying, I thought, whoa, this is my kind of stuff. Because I'm really like a student of expression. This is the 18th or the 19th or the 20th play in a series playing I have, called on the road, a search for American character. My grandfather said to me when I was a girl, if you say a word often enough, it becomes you. If you say a word often enough, it becomes you. So my goal in my adult life, since the '70s, has been to go around America with a tape recorder, with the idea of saying everybody's words over and over again to try to absorb America. Right? [CHECK AUDIO] so that's what I've been doing. And right before I did Let me down easy, I went to Washington and made a play, 500 characters I mean --

CAVANAUGH: 500 characters?

SMITH: Not 500 character, 500 interviews.


SMITH: But everybody, this Jefferson scholar told me that Thomas Jefferson could never be found in verbal undress. The language of Washington as I said before, is very controlled. So really although it was fascinating intellectually, it wasn't the best place for my best. I go right to Yale, boom! People were sing singing songs issue one taking off their clothe, I thought whoa! As a student of expression, this is exactly where I need to be.

CAVANAUGH: Do you videotape your -- interviews?

SMITH: I do. Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: And when you come home after the videotape, and you watch it, how do you make your selections on who's gonna be in the play? Is it because of the amount of passion that they bring?

SMITH: Passion, expression, this is the 50 show I videoed, as I mentioned, I started doing this kind of work in the late '70s, you know, because in that course of time, cameras have gotten so small. At first, it was a daunting idea. I could barely afford myself, couldn't have a camera crew. But now you can do that. So so yeah, I mean, the way I talk about particularly let me down easy is all of these people would be -- they'd like to go it a mountain top and scream this story.


SMITH: I just happened to be there. And now, in the course of making all of these plays, and it is the center of my artistic work, even though I've had a chance to be in popular culture, I've interviewed thousands and thousands of people. At this point I'm only looking for the people who really want to talk. It's very different from what you want to do. You've gotta get somebody to talk. And especially when, like, people are powerful, you gotta get the president to talk, [CHECK AUDIO] what did he mean? What is he covering up? Or movie stars, whatever. My people that I need are the people who want to talk. And that's really one of the first things that makes the difference.

CAVANAUGH: I want to ask one more question about your process. And that is, okay, most contemporary acting is it all about finding the courage inside of yourself. Working from the inside out. And what it seems do you is the opposite. You work from the outside in in seeing how somebody's speech patterns, and how their movements and their gestures indicate their personality, their essence. Can you explain how -- why it works different he for you?

SMITH: Huh, yeah, well, I was trained that way. I did serious, serious training, and wrote my whole masters thesis on this type of thing. And of course, the great grandfather of all of this is a Russian man named Stanislavski, he was putting forth his notions about acting around the time that Freud was lecturing around America. So he was coming out of a time that was highly psychological. [CHECK AUDIO] about Marlon Brando, and so forth, and how he really changed the course of events in American acting. I thought, and I had a fantastic education in a servetory, I thought that it was a spiritual deadline. And you know, I told you about my grandfather, [CHECK AUDIO] and my first stop was San Diego, was Coronado.


SMITH: And I left real soon, but none the less, and made my way up the coast, but I've really been on a journey. And this journey has been about others. I decided when I got out of school, I wouldn't be writing about 31 Spring Daily Avenue and Baltimore Maryland where I grew up, check check and the ultimate. The interesting thing about let me down easy is the first time a family member of mine is in the play.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, that's interesting.

SMITH: My aunt Lorraine, who's the only living woman in a mother's family.


SMITH: And there is a way in which this play, even though I've been searching for the other, going as far away as you can, a bull rider in Shoshone Idaho, to try to find out something about human beings, in the end, my process does lead me home. Because even as I'm reaching for the other, I never know when in this reach of saying somebody else's words that a whole really powerful image is gonna come up from my own background. And so, these two things work together, whether we're going from the outside in or the inside out, we're all in the same journey to try to learn what we can about the human spirit.

CAVANAUGH: Anna, you told us what you want this -- your play, let me down easy, to engender in the audience, discussing honesty, about the healthcare system. What did you learn doing this? Doing this entire process? What kind of revelations have you got about our healthcare?

SMITH: You know, I bring you the good news. Because a play is not alive until it's in front of an audience of it's just not alive. And what I have learned from doing this play, since 2007, in a variety of cities, American people, no matter what side of the political isle they are on, want a caring nation. You know, not just am I taken care of. They want a nation where more than just -- they want a caring nation. And we have different ideas about how wee gonna get there. And I think that's one reason why the healthcare debate is so potentially volatile. I went to town halls where I was told people are gonna bring guns in. Remember? Right in --


SMITH: So that's what I've learned is that's what -- and the other thing I learned was how deep, deep, deep in American culture and personality, and again this is part of a bigger lifelong project, on the road in search of American character, how much we are addicted to hope. The bull rider says it best, you know, when you think about it, we shouldn't be able to stay on a bull that's trying to buck you off. [CHECK AUDIO] but I think it's determination. I think it comes from inside you, what keeps you on that bull. I learned that in doing this.

CAVANAUGH: Anna, thank you so much. I appreciate it.

SMITH: Thank you for having me.

CAVANAUGH: I want to let everybody know, let me down easy, it opened last night. It runs through May 15th at the lyceum theatre in Horton Plaza. I've been speaking with the creator of let me down easy, Anna Deavere Smith. And we have to take a short break. When we return, more of These Days here on KPBS.