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Actor, Playwright Anna Deavere Smith Weaves Multiple Stories of Healthcare Struggles into New Solo Performance “Let Me Down Easy”

StoryNovember 06, 2009
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Over the past eight years, acclaimed actor, documentarian and playwright Anna Deavere Smith has interviewed hundreds of people — doctors and patients, celebrities and regular folks, Americans and people from around the world — about their struggles with illness, pain, mortality and the healthcare system. She has distilled a sampling of their emotionally charged stories into her latest powerful solo show, Let Me Down Easy. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We end today’s show with a more personal take on the healthcare debate. Over the past eight years, acclaimed actor, documentarian and playwright Anna Deavere Smith has interviewed hundreds of people — doctors and patients, celebrities and regular folks, Americans and people from around the world — about their struggles with illness, pain, mortality and the healthcare system. She has distilled a sampling of their emotionally charged stories into her latest powerful solo show. It’s called Let Me Down Easy, and it’s playing at New York’s Second Stage Theater through December [December 6].

AMY GOODMAN: Anna Deavere Smith has won numerous awards, including two Obies, several Tony nominations, a MacArthur genius grant. She’s a professor at New York University’s Tisch School of Arts and is well known for her roles in television shows like The West Wing and now Nurse Jackie. But she rose to prominence with her early theatrical productions. Fires in the Mirror, Twilight: Los Angeles 1992 presented racially charged moments in contemporary American history, using a multiplicity of voices, all based on interviews with real people — participants, observers, politicians, activists.

Well, Anna Deavere Smith joins us now in our firehouse studio, and she is at it again with this remarkable production called Let Me Down Easy.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Anna.

ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Thanks so much for getting up early to do this, because I know you have a busy schedule, and you’re performing every night. Talk about the research you did for this play.

ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: Yes. Well, the play started when I was invited to come to the Yale Medical School, actually the end of the ’90s, when people still wrote letters. I got a letter inviting me to come there to interview doctors and patients and then to present characters at what’s called Medical Grand Rounds, which is kind of a lecture series for doctors. I would imagine usually they’re scientists and esteemed people like that, not a clown. I consider acting a form of clowning, in the essence of the word. But it was a remarkable experience. And although I did a lot of other things over the last eight years, I really didn’t have a desire to make theater about anything else other than the — our bodies, their power and their vulnerability.

And I went to Yale at a time well before what we now think of as the healthcare debate, but the doctor who invited me to come, Dr. Ralph Horowitz, who’s now at Stanford as head of medicine there, saw, you know, the problem then, as I’m sure many doctors did, but also was looking at a critical moment in medicine, where the twentieth century had delivered a lot of science, but the whole idea of healing had kind of gone away, under the weight of that science, and so leaving me, as I left Yale, with a question about where is care in our society? We’re smarter, but are we more caring? Do we know how to heal? And that’s what really catapulted me into this investigation of doing over 300 interviews on three continents.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And then, the decision to actually mount a production obviously comes at a very timely moment, as we’re in the midst of this debate. When did you decide to actually mount the whole production?

ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: Well, that really happened as long ago as 2005, that I started thinking about it as a production. And I’ve had three productions in three other theaters before it came to New York. So this is just serendipitous and, I suppose, lucky that — or at least I’m happy that it’s against the background of the political debate, because it means that audiences come to the theater already thinking about this and wondering about it and maybe fretting over it. And then, what I’ve done is just a piece of a larger kind of a discussion that’s going on. And I — that’s what I try to do in all of my work, so I’m glad that the timing turned out that way.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, what is incredible about your one-woman show is that you are one woman, but you are many, many people, and you transform without even changing your clothes, and suddenly we are with you as an old woman, as a kid. We’re with you as a man, as a woman. But tell us how you met the late Governor Ann Richards.

ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: Oh, well, that’s really a nice question, and you’re the first person to ask me that in this time. Actually, I have a very good friend who’s a brilliant writer. She wrote The Lion King, Irene Mecchi. And she introduced me to the governor, who she had had an opportunity to meet, because the governor was a friend also of Lily Tomlin, and my friend Irene had written for Ms. Tomlin. And so, that’s how I met her.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s play a clip from Let Me Down Easy. This is Anna Deavere Smith playing the former governor of Texas, Ann Richards.

    ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: [as Gov. Ann Richards] 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, who said, “If the English language is good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for everybody.”

AMY GOODMAN: Anna Deavere Smith playing the late Governor Ann Richards, who died of cancer.

ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: Esophageal cancer, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about your conversation with her. Where did you meet her?

ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: I met her at MD Anderson Cancer Center. One of the people who has really helped make this show possible, a wonderful donor in Texas who was also a friend of Governor Richards, Chula Reynolds, organized for me to go to MD Anderson Cancer Center, where I spent a very intense week interviewing all kinds of people — engineers, nurses, patients, doctors. And Governor Richards, at the time, was undergoing a very progressive therapy, proton therapy, at a proton therapy center that had just started, had just opened. And I knew Governor Richards very well by that time, and so I went and spoke with her. We had dinner together in Houston. And unfortunately, we lost her within four months after that interview.

AMY GOODMAN: You couldn’t hug her, could you?

ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: Couldn’t hug her, no, no.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, maybe she let you?

ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: She did hug me when I came in, but you’re remembering a line in the play, where she says that due to the kind of — her vulnerability to the treatment, she’s not allowed to hug people or shake hands.

JUAN GONZALEZ: One of the other characters you play is Ruth Katz —



JUAN GONZALEZ: — of Yale Hospital. How did you meet her?


Well, she’s one of the only — she is the only person still left from that first Yale project that I did. And she’s now busily working, by the way, in Washington with Congressman Waxman.


Well, before you tell us anything about her, let’s go to the clip of Ruth Katz.


    [as Ruth Katz] And an oncology fellow, who’s — which is not one of our full-time faculty, but someone who’s in training here, specializing in oncology, came into my room. “I want to apologize, but we can’t find your records. Could you tell me what kind of cancer you have?” I said, “This is appalling.” He said, “No, hey, it’s not just you. It happens here quite a bit.” I said, “I am appalled for every patient who comes on this unit.” 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 going to 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, you know, he says, “Do you work?” you know, about midway through his questions. And I said, “I do.” And he said, “Are you working full time?” And I said, “I am.” And he said, “Where are you working?” I said, “I’m associate dean at the medical school.” Now he looks up. “At this medical school?” I said, “At the Yale School of Medicine.” He found my files within a half an hour.


That was Ruth Katz, a patient at the Yale New Haven Hospital, played by Anna Deavere Smith. Juan?


It’s amazing. And it happens, obviously, in hospitals all the time, that those people who are well known or well connected get a kind of treatment that the average person doesn’t. And this vignette of yours captures it perfectly, what is happening all the time.




And what is she doing with Congressman Waxman now?


She’s just really working very hard to try to push through healthcare reform. She’s a terrific woman.


Your play, Let Me Down Easy, was incredibly moving. We don’t have a clip of this, but the story of Katrina and the doctor that you spoke to in New Orleans and that you played, tell us about Katrina and her.


Well, I’ve learned so much from this young woman, Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, Dr. Kiersta Kurtz-Burke. I went down to New Orleans, as I’m sure you did, after Katrina and met lots of different kinds of people. And she was a doctor at Charity Hospital, which is regrettably now closed. There’s an argument whether Bellevue was the first public hospital, or hospital for poor people in America, or Charity. Of course, in New Orleans they would say it was Charity.

And the thing that’s riveting to me about Kiersta Kurtz-Burke is that she has a whole other idea, new way of looking at the world. She talks about why she loves working at a Charity Hospital. And at one point she says, “You know, I always thought that I had a tremendous opportunity to see what it would be like, in some sense, without living it, to be poor and to open up your mind and your heart to these fantastic people coming into the hospital.” Just that right there, when you think about it, is a different way of thinking about things.

And she’s talking about, you know, the kinds of doctors who go to public hospitals to train, and then, you know, they’re out the door, they’re off to making money.

And she talks about what it — the conversion experience it was for her as a young privileged doctor — she went to Barnard and so forth — from the Midwest, to realize that, for her patients, it was no big deal that they were left there, that they were abandoned, that they had told her in advance, “They’re not going to come and get us.” Private hospitals had helicopters, got the people out right away. And she was absolutely shocked that, five days into this, her patients were still sitting there.

And her passion, I think, really speaks to the audience, which I’m kind of pleased about. I mean, you never know who’s sitting out there. And the fact that people are responding so much to her idea of what care should be, that, you know, she really believes you ought to be able to give the best healthcare to everybody, regardless of whether they’re rich or they’re poor. And people are responding to that and saying how moved they are and how much it means to them that they get to meet Kiersta Kurtz-Burke.


I’m curious about the methodology that you use to be able to re-create these characters so faithfully and so vividly. When you interview people, are you taping them? Are you taking notes? Are you just sitting and having a conversation and then reconstructing your recollections afterward?


I use a tape recorder. I mean, I record it, and then I learn it. Yeah.


Well, here you are playing Peter Gomes. Actually, I met you at the Aspen Ideas Festival, right?


At Aspen, yeah.


And you came to the first broadcast, going global, at Aspen public media center, at the public access TV station there, which was fantastic. But another person who was there that summer, last summer, was Peter Gomes. And you play Peter Gomes in Let Me Down Easy, the reverend at the Memorial Church at Harvard University.


    [as Rev. Peter Gomes] It means taking the measure of the days you have, taking death seriously, because it is ultimate. And we have had something precious. And we recall it regularly and faithfully when we visit the graves of the ones we love. And then my job is to try to urge them to come back. I say, “I don’t want you to leave here today full of terror and sadness and sorrow. I want you to know that this is the place that you can come to recall to life, in whatever fashion you have, the person we sent off today.” I say, “Come here again. Bring flowers. Remember your loved one.”


Anna Deavere Smith playing Reverend Peter Gomes. Your meeting with him and what most moved you about Peter Gomes?


Interestingly enough, I interviewed him at Aspen. I just took — you know, I sort of sometimes just carry my stuff with me, just in case, and he was there. And I wanted to talk to him about grace and kindness, which I think is a part of this whole question about how we are, how we put together taking care of people in a winner-take-all society. And I think that that has to do with grace and kindness. And in the course of talking to him about those ideas, I just wanted to know, as a man who has buried many people, right? — christened many, buried many, married many — what are the things that he says? What are the things we think about?

And one of the things that I was so fascinated by is the idea that, according to Gomes, you know, doctors don’t want to be around when people are dying. He says their function, their job — their job is to keep the person here with all the science and technology that we produce, he says. But when it was clear that they were going to go away, we were the ones to see that they went. And one of the most important things you can do with someone is to be with them when they die. But the doctors don’t like that, so they have to go off, save somebody else.

And I think that’s relevant to how we think about a caring society. If medicine can only be — we understand, we want it to keep us alive. But where in all of this do we think about our mortality? I think it’s a very hard ethical question and a very hard cultural question. And so, talking to Gomes helped me think about other ways that we deal with it, and certainly one place is in religious organizations.


A final clip we have is of Sally Jenkins, the sports columnist at the Washington Post.


    [as Sally Jenkins] It’s just this force. I mean, downhill skiers drive120 miles an hour. I mean, that’s why it’s — with this whole doping thing, it’s ridiculous to say to them, “Oh, no. Don’t do that. You might hurt yourself.” Tell a downhill skier, tell an Austrian gold medalist downhill Olympic skier, “Oh, no. You don’t want to take a little EPO. You might hurt yourself.” Are you kidding me?


Sally Jenkins, the sportswriter at the Washington Post. How did you meet her?


Oh, she’s great, isn’t she? Ann Richards introduced me to her and —




—- wanted me to meet her. Yeah, and Ann -—


The same laugh.


Ann thought that — Ann had been in another one of my shows and very aware of what my work is and was trying to get me an interview with Lance Armstrong for it. And then Sally had co-written Lance’s books. And so, she just wanted me to meet Sally and help me have that happen. She’s terrific. She’s just — she’s so smart. And I talked to her a lot. A lot of her material is not in this show. Several times in another show I talk to her a lot. She really — I don’t know. She can just think through things very well. And she’s just got so much energy, as you can see there.


Well, Anna Deavere Smith, you transformed into many different people in this play, Let Me Down Easy. How did this experience transform you?


I think that’s a wonderful question, and I suppose I’m in the process. Having done so many interviews, around 300 for this, everybody that I talked to understands something that I don’t understand. And the twenty who are in the show right now definitely do that. And I think every night that I go out there, I’m struggling with one of the kernels of what they understand to try to increase my understanding. And I guess what I understand the most from this whole experience is that life is precious and that while it’s here, we have to — we should not miss the opportunity of saturating ourselves in its richness.


Well, Anna Deavere Smith, we want to thank you very much for being here. And it was particularly moving for me, as I just lost my mom, just came out of the hospital, and one of the people who made the biggest difference in my and my brothers’ lives, living with my mom at the hospital for the last month here in New York, was a leader in the palliative care movement, Dr. Diane Meier. And so, this play definitely, I think, spoke to that whole issue that she always raised, the two issues patients need the most: one, time with their doctor, which they so rarely get; and pain management, how to deal with pain, and that takes listening to a patient, caring about a patient, and spending time with that patient. I think you conveyed that in this play. I want to thank you.

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