It’s hard to describe the brilliance of Anna Deavere Smith. The New York Times said of her work, she’s the “ultimate impressionist. She does people’s souls.” She’s a chameleon. A hybrid. Part journalist, writer and actor. Her most acclaimed solo performances – Twilight: Los Angeles and Fires in the Mirror, brought her huge critical success. The former about the LA riots, the latter about the Crown Heights civil disturbances. She’s been my friend since the 80′s when my wife and I hosted a dinner for her in Washington as she was researching House Arrest, a play about the press and the presidency. She’s also a genius at what she does. In fact, she’s officially a genius having won a MacArthur.
Her new play, Let Me Down Easy, is about the human body. Its strength, its fragility and how none of us, no matter how hard we try, escapes the end, when our body shuts down at death. She ponders the question throughout: Do we do it gracefully? Anna’s been researching the play for years. Her travels have taken her to war-torn Rwanda, AIDS orphanages in South Africa, New Orleans after Katrina and inside the hospital as patients prepare to die. Although it sounds dark (who wants dark in the year 2009 anyway?), it’s not a depressing play. Hard to believe, but it’s hopeful. It tells us that the time we spend here is short and that how you live, is how you die.
My most recent 1:2:1 podcast talks with Smith about the characters in Let Me Down Easy. It closes with one of her most touching performances, that of Trudy Howell, director of Chance Orphanage in Johannesburg, South Africa. I’ve seen Anna perform Trudy several times and it never fails to bring tears to my eyes.
If you’re in New York between now and January 3rd, rush over to the Second Stage Theater. Even when you’re talking about the admittedly downer topics of life and death, it’s not a downer of an evening. Quite the contrary. It’s downright uplifting.