Photo by Joan Marcus
Playwright, actor, and activist Anna Deveare Smith talks about her extraordinary career and her current one-woman show, Let Me Down Easy. [31:01]
Anna Deveare Smith: No, I was not the first woman governor of Texas. Well, in the 20s there was Pa Ferguson who was governor. And Pa was married to...Ma. And Pa died. And Ma became governor. Now she was the one when asked about bilingual education if the English language is good enough for Jesus Christ it's good enough for everybody.
That was playwright, actor, and activist Anne Deveare Smith portraying the late governor of Texas Ann Richards. It's part of her current one-woman show, Let Me Down Easy.
Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed.
Anna Deveare Smith has won numerous awards, among them two Obies, two Tony nominations, a Drama Desk Award, and a MacArthur fellowship. In her latest project, Let Me Down Easy, Anna Deavere Smith explores a vast topic: the human body, its illnesses, and its mortality.
Before our eyes, she inhabits 20 people on stage, from a rodeo bull rider to a doctor in a New Orleans public hospital, from a Buddhist monk to cyclist Lance Armstrong.
Anna Deveare Smith is said to have created a new form of theater. Her work combines the journalistic technique of interviewing people with the art of interpreting their exact words in performance. It's all part of a life-long project titled: âOn the Road: A Search for American Character.â And search she does, Anna Deveare Smith's subjects are complex. She came to national prominence with her one-woman show, Fires in the Mirror: a play she composed from conversations with people who experienced or observed New York's 1991 Crown Heights racial riots. When the play opened in NYC in the spring of 1992, race was suddenly a topic on everyone's mind. Los Angeles had just exploded after police were found not guilty in the Rodney King trial.
Anna Deveare Smith: Well, it was supposed to have its first show on the night after the riots and the show got canceled because of the riots because people really thought there was going to be another riot in New York. So those riots, all kidding aside, did turn my career around because even when I had the first meeting about that show, âFires in the Mirrorâ in New York, the designers who were hired sort of roundly said nobody was going to care about the subject matter, race. And then with that riot, literally when I went to the theater at night, I felt like I was being pulled there. People wereÂ very, very concerned that this was America. How could this happen in America? So that work ended up serving a need for people to have a place to come and think about or I would say bring everything they were thinking about race, and my show was just a reason to convene people. We had a lot of really interesting post-play discussions. And then actually, I shortened that run. The show kept getting extended but I could've probably played it longer. But I then went to Los Angeles in the August after the riots to start doing research for what was âTwilight: Los Angeles,â my show about the riots in L.A.
Jo Reed: Anna, tell me how did you move into this whole series On the Road? What compelled you to do that? You studied acting in college.
Anna Deveare Smith: I studied acting, not in college but I studied acting after college and ended up getting my MFA in it. But I was really interested in language. I had been a language major in college. I thought I wanted to be a linguist but abandoned that for a number of reasons, not the least of which it looked an awful lot like mathematics when you really came down to it. <laughter> I wasn't really interested in the theory of language. I was really interested in speaking languages. And even as a language major, if you're a German major or a French major, it ends up being more about the literature, which is nothing the matter with that. But I realized what I was really interested in doing is making other sounds of different languages. That's what I liked. And in that way, what I do now is not foreign to that because for my approximation, although all the characters I perform are in English, because I don't speak any other languages well enough to perform in other languages, they're all making different kinds of sounds. Nobody's making the same sounds. So I'm a student of expression and the thing that kicked my interest off further was in actually my classical training at the American Conservatory Theater, studying Shakespeare. And part of Shakespeare's extraordinary genius was his attention to how people actually speak; not what they're saying but how they express themselves and what that tells you about not just their social place but also about their mental state. And so as far back as the '70s, I developed a keen interest in that and started interviewing people so that I could study exactly how people speak and what that would tell me about them, and also about the time they lived in. And so this whole thing, âOn the Road: A Search for American Characterâ has been going on for a long time, with the first production having been in the early '80s with other actors.
Jo Reed: You really created documentary theater. It's creative non-fiction on the stage.
Anna Deveare Smith: Well, that's a nice way to say it. Usually, people don't put the whole thing with documentary theater into what you said, creative non-fiction on the stage because, of course, ultimately, there is something fictional about what's ultimately produced because in the case of âLet Me Down Easy,â I interviewed 320 people on three continents. So to narrow that down to an hour and a half or an hour and 41 minutes or 40, or an hour and 39 minutes, depending on the night in the theater, means that there's something about it which is not just documentary. My imagination has been at work and imagination of the people who work with me has been at work.
Jo Reed: You made a decision that you were going to include people's exact words. Tell me why.
Anna Deveare Smith: Well, I'm using not just words but I'm striving to use exact utterances and that goes back, again, to what I was saying about how I'm a student of expression. What I really am interested in is how people express themselves. So I mentioned that I did 320 interviews for this show. Every single one of these 20 people who's in the show has an extraordinary way of expressing themselves, both physically and vocally. And that's what I'm studying and that's what I feel so blessed to have a chance to come out and do every night. I just finished watching this great documentary on Paul Taylor and his dancers talking about what it means to dance, or what it means to spend an hour in the studio. I get to go out every night and to reiterate these expressions that I think are just beautiful in every way.
Jo Reed: But by doing that, clearly, you also want to reveal something to the audience, or many somethings.
Anna Deveare Smith: Yes, many somethings. Well, I think in this play, there's an Episcopal minister who came to see the show last night and he was saying that the play is a lot like the gospel in many ways. And I'm not a student of theology. What it's bringing is the good news. And even though the play brings some troubling news, I think ultimately it brings the good news, that evil won't win and that grace and kindness will always outweigh suffering. And so I feel that the play is also about what Reverend James Cone, or Dr. James Cone, Professor James Cone â he has all three titles âÂ says in the beginning, is that it's about love. And so I think that's the good news I'm bringing every night. Every one of these 20 people also love something and they express what that is that they love.
Jo Reed: How did the project, âLet Me Down Easyâ begin?
Anna Deveare Smith: It began when I was invited to come to the Yale School of Medicine and to make a performance for medical grand rounds, which is usually scientists or people lecturing about serious matters. I was invited to come and interview doctors and patients and then to create a performance for medical grand rounds by the doctor who was then the head of internal medicine, Dr. Ralph Horowitz, who was very interested back then in the late '90s in trying to bring to Yale some questions about how doctors as scientists were or were not really taking care of people with the idea that you really need to listen to somebody before you start doing things to them.
Jo Reed: Here's ADS as Ruth Katz, a patient at the Yale School of Medicine.
An Oncology Fellow who's, which is not one of our full-time faculty, but is someone who's in training here, specializing in oncology came into my room. âI want to apologize. But we can't find your records. Could you tell me what kind of cancer you have?â I said, âthis is appalling. She said, no hey, it's not just you. It happens here quite a bit.â I said, âI am appalled for every patient who comes on this unit.â And I had to go through, from like the beginning, my whole story. Well, eventually, I'll tell you, I'll tell you as an aside, eventually, I knew, I could tell by his question that he was gonna get to the question of do you work? And I've never advertised my position around here. I just wanted to be treated like everybody else. And so he says do you work about midway through his questions. And I said, âI do.â And he said-a, âare you working full-time?â I said, âyes.â He said, âWhere are you working?â I said, âI'm associate Dean at the Medical School.â Now, he looks up. I said, âat this Medical School?â Yes, at the Yale School of Medicine. He found my files within a half an hour.
Anna Deveare Smith: And this whole project made me start to think about the difference between science and healing and for me, a bigger question, given my long project, âOn the Road: A Search for American Characterâ is how do we have a caring nation. And I hope that even though this play, certainly, there's no way you could see it and not think that I'm supporting healthcare reform. But nonetheless, I'd even like to hear from the other side of the aisle in terms of how we think we're going to create a caring nation, which is about healthcare. It's also about education and a lot of other things. So I think we're at that critical moment.
Jo Reed: âLet Me Down Easyâ though is not just about healthcare. It's really about the body and the body's vulnerability.
Anna Deveare Smith: It's about the vulnerability of the body. It's about the resilience of the spirit. A lot of the people in the play have very strong bodies, conquering bodies. Lance Armstrong is a well-known person who has a conquering body. There's also a less well known former heavyweight champion, Michael Bent, boxing, heavyweight boxing champion, a bull rider, Brent Williams, the well known model, Lauren Hutton. All of these people brought their bodies into public and were able to rule and reign because of something, some kind of innate and trained power that they had. In the case of Lauren, it was an innate presence, the famous gap-toothed smile. She changed the way modeling was ever. She was the first supermodel, first one to sign a contract, discovered by Diana Reiland. We know what Lance Armstrong has done. My play tells you the story of Brent Williams, the bull rider, and Michael Bent. So on the one hand, we have examples of that kind of physical achievement; on the other hand, the awareness that the rumor is true. We are mortal. And also, the play makes it clear that not everybody gets a fair shake. There are people in this play that have things happen to them that wouldn't happen to them if they were rich, or if they had power. And all of the rich and powerful people in the play speak about their own awareness of their advantage. It may be only in one line. Governor Ann Richards, who at sort of the 11 o'clock number, brings the house down, at a certain point says âI'm just so glad I can afford this.â So everyone's aware of the possibility that some people may not be taken care of, even when they're aware that they're getting the best.
Jo Reed: You have a very moving part. There are many moving parts in âLet Me Down Easyâ but you speak to Dr. Kirsta Kurtz-Burke at Charity Hospital in New Orleans, and that was an extraordinary moment.
Anna Deveare Smith: Yeah. She's an extraordinary person. She's a white woman, advantaged, went to Barnard, was then trained at Charity Hospital in New Orleans, incredible doctor. I went down to New Orleans after Katrina and I was just blown away by everybody at Charity Hospital, the first public hospital â well, some people say Bellevue was â but one of the first public hospitals in America. When I got down there to Charity Hospital, there were doctors on ladders, painting their clinic themselves because they really wanted to get back to work and help their patients. And so what Kirsta, what happens to happen to her during Katrina is her realization that, as a privileged person, she had advantages that she didn't even realize, even though she'd been working in a hospital for poor people. But to see that they were the last ones out that, on the fifth day, they were still there, the sixth day, they were still there. Nobody, not the government, not FEMA, nobody had come to rescue them, and this just blew her mind. It blew her mind but what blew her mind further was that all the people she was working with, many of them African-American, didn't even expect anybody to come to help them out. And so she talks about how there's this deep, deep distrust, this deep down, lack of trust in the government. And what is especially remarkable to me about that piece is it's one of the two pieces that audiences respond to or tell me afterwards that that really got to them. And that's the good news because let's face it. Who comes to the theater? Privileged people. But that they're so taken with Kirsta's report about a lack of equity means a lot to me. I think that's good news. I think that's a really good sign because the people who come to see my showsâLet's face it, this is not singing and dancing. Right. This is not singing and dancing. <laughter>So people who come to my shows are also people who could make a difference where they live, where they work. And I'm pleased that Kirsta Kurtz-Burke means something to them.
Jo Reed: It was a wonderful moment because I think in however long, seven minutes, eight--
Anna Deveare Smith: She's in the longest piece in the show.
Jo Reed: You just encapsulate two Americas, and the different expectations--
Anna Deveare Smith: That really says it the best, which you just said, the different expectations. Because don't you think that the worst thing that could happen to you-- Cornell West, who I admire so much and I performed him in my play âTwilightâ about the Los Angeles riots, he said something that I just will never forget. He talked about âblack sadness,â and he talked about the sheer joy of being human has been truncated. The sheer joy of being human has been truncated. I have a dog. When I watch my dog, she's basically in a state of joy. She basically wants to move. She's excited about simple things, moving, seeing other dogs, seeing people. That's her natural state and I think that's really how we, as linguistic animals, come into the world, with that state, that expectation that everything's going to be okay. Then we learn that it's not and that some of our hope is truncated, or the sheer joy of learning, all of these things, so that lack of expectation or what Kirsta says, âThat heavy sense of resignation,â to be resigned, to this notion that this is what I get and I will not get anymore, is a big problem. Because leadership comes, or I've seen in my lifetime, is the great leaders are the people who come forward and say, âWe should expect more. We deserve more,â and I've seen a change. I've seen it happen â the great leadership obviously of Martin Luther King but also the people who aren't famous. So without that expectation, you're not going to have possibility and you're not even going to have social movements. So I think that Kiersta so succinctly, as you said, brings us also that, robbing of the expectation, is probably one of the things that makes her passage so meaningful to audiences. Because we want to believe that America is the place of expectation for everybody.
Jo Reed: Mixed into that are moments of grace and grace, as you mentioned earlier, is very critical to your work and it clearly plays a very important part in âLet Me Down Easy.â Talk about what grace means to you.
Anna Deveare Smith: This sounds like a joke but I talked to a Buddhist monk and imam, two Christian preachers and a rabbi all about this notion of grace. And it turns out it's a Christian idea. It appears in other forms. Jews for example have mercy. Well, somebody gave me this great quote which, you know, for those who are, I suppose, believing in Christians, that quote is âGod's will will not take you where God's grace cannot keep you.â âGod's will will not take you where God's grace cannot keep you.â So I think in a religious sense, some people really believe that grace is this idea that, as I've said earlier, everything's going to be okay. However, grace also means in that song âAmazing Grace,â there's that strange line that I'm not sure I understood before I started thinking about grace, that is âI was a wretch.â
Jo Reed: âTo save a wretch like me.â
Anna Deveare Smith: âTo save a wretch like me.â I thought well, what does that really mean? And so both Reverend Cone and Reverend Gomes, who were represented in the play â although not with these lines â talked to me about what that means. It means that we all have a share in the failed part of the human enterprise. It means we're all responsible, we're all responsible. It doesn't mean praying and then everything turns out okay. It means we all have responsibility. So if you think about it, when a surfer achieves grace on the wave, that is with his or her full participation. And we think of the grace that we love to see, the grace of a dancer, the grace of a good deed. It's never easy. It's never easy. It is through our full effort. And by the way, that is something that also inspired me, when you ask how it began at Yale. I realized from talking to the patients, how much they all have to be very active participants in their care. You just can't have things done to you. You have to rise to the occasion. So I think that's what grace is. It's rising to the occasion of the struggle but believing that help is on the way, even if that belief that help is on the way is the only thing that gets you through.
Jo Reed: Let me ask you. You've talked to over 300 people for âLet Me Down Easy.â How did you find people responding to you? Were they willing to talk to you? Because words work both ways. They reveal but they can also conceal.
Anna Deveare Smith: Well, that's one reason why I decided that this project would not end at Yale. The Yale thing was a gig and it was an honor. It was a visiting professorship. I didn't really believe, couldn't imagine me, a clown, could have anything to say to them. But what was stunning to me as a student of expression, is that when I sat down-â and by then I'd, as I mentioned, done many of these projects, talked to all kinds of people, from presidents, three of our presidents actually, to Korean shop owners whose stores were burned to the ground in Los Angeles. I sat down at Yale and turned on â and this is before something as nice as your MarantzÂ â turned on my tape recorder. I only had to ask one question. âWhat happened to you?â And people were singing songs. They were bringing in their grandchildren. One lady got up, took off her clothes, showed me her scars. One woman prayed. I said âDid you pray during this?â âYes.â âCould you pray for me?â âFather, here I am again.â Singing. One little girl came in and read to me from her diary when Grandpop was getting a heart transplant and she was so afraid he was going to die. The range of expression was just unbelievable. I never had the chance to meet the great Eudora Welty but in reading about her, I always remember this part about how she as a child wasn't allowed to sit at the table when all the grownups came on Sunday to talk. But she would sit out in the hallway and listen. And she said when they started talking, her ears would open up like morning glories. That's how I felt sitting in that office at Yale when people started to talk. And so this is an area around which people are happy to talk to you, their body. And so that's what I found out on three continents and 300 interviews. People want to talk and they're very expressive about this.
ADS as Brent Williams, rodeo bull rider.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â âToughness. Well, we was in West Jordan, Utah and this bull shoved my face right through the metal shoots, and (grunts) tore my face all up. And uh, took me to a hospital. Took five hours sowing up my face. And then the next day they straightened out my nose. And I had a rodeo that night, so I didn't them putting me under anesthesia, whatever, however you say that word. And, uh, when they straighten out yerâ¦See, I told âem to do without it. And when they straighten out your nose they take these two metal rods and shove âem up your nose and work their way up, and it felt like it was just going out through my brains and out the top of my head. Everybody said it should've killed me. And they didn't even knock me out! (takes a sip of beer). But I have a high tolerance for pain. But the good thing about it was once they straightened out my nose I could breathe and I couldn't breathe since they broke my nose in high school.
Jo Reed: âLet Me Down Easy,â where did the title come from?
Anna Deveare Smith: Woke up one morning and thought that's what it should be called.
Jo Reed: You've been doing this project, the On the Road series for quite some time, and it's the search for discovering American character. Thus far, what have you discovered?
Anna Deveare Smith: Well, let me say first of all, that when I was a kid, my grandfather said to me âif you say a word often enough, it becomes you.â So just like a photographer would take a picture or a musicologist would collect music, I've been trying to absorb America by speaking the words of the people in the hopes that I would, again, come out of all of this with a grand picture in my mind of America. I told you I studied Shakespeare. One of the books that influenced me in the study of Shakespeare was a book called The Elizabethan World Picture, which was really about Shakespeare's imagination and looking at his language of evidence about how people were living at that time. And so I haven't really stopped to look at my work in that way to see what the picture is. But this will sound really sappy but I do believe that one really fundamental part of American character is what the bull rider says when he talks about bull riding, and he says you know, âWhen you ride bull and you do good and you're riding, you just feel like life couldn't be better,â like this is what life is supposed to be. He says âI don't know,â he says âBecause there's so much power in it. If you think about it, we shouldn't be able to stay on the back of a bull trying to buck you off because we weigh 150 pounds. Bull weighs like over 2,000 pounds. But I think it's determination. Think it comes from inside you, keeps you on that bull.â When I learned that in the riots, I learned it in some of the pieces I made about academia. I think in fact that icon of the bull rider is kind of fabulous for us, is just this notion that when you are doing well, you just feel like life couldn't be better. And this belief that what's going to help you do well is determination. Now, there are a lot of things that maybe make that not true, <laughter> but we believe that.
Jo Reed: You know, I'm sitting here and I'm thinking, indeed, you do champion vulnerable people and you kind of mediate them for the audience. Why do you think a mediator is necessary? In other words, we can sit in the theater and be very moved by the doctor at the Charity Hospital in New Orleans and at the same time, we can leave here and walk past people sleeping on grates.
Anna Deveare Smith: Well, you've said it all, I think. As a reporter of some troubling things, all I can do is spark imagination of the people in the audience to take a minute to imagine that other life. And for some of them, they really open up their heart and that opening of all of our hearts makes us understand, and the same thing happens to me if I hear a beautiful piece of music or I go to a good documentary. We understand the volume of our own potential to feel for the other, right, which has got to be a part of what helps us feel cousins to the whole display of our humanness. And I think that that must be for some people, even if they're looking at things that are less than beautiful, it must be a good feeling because we want to know the depth of our own ability to feel for the other.
Jo Reed: Grace.
Anna Deveare Smith: Grace.
Jo Reed: Anna Deveare Smith, thank you so much.
Anna Deveare Smith: Thank you.
Jo Reed: I appreciate it.
That was Anna Deveare Smith, she was talking about her current production, Let Me Down Easy. You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts.
Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
Excerpts from Let Me Down Easy, written and performed by Anna Deavere Smith, used courtesy of Arena Stage.
Excerpt from âForeric: piano studyâ from the album Metascapes, composed and performed by Todd Barton, used courtesy of Valley Productions.
The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. And now you subscribe to Art Works at iTunes. Just click on Beyond Campus and look for the National Endowment for the Arts. Next week, a conversation with NEA Jazz Master, Ron Carter. To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.