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Health Policy, Medicine and Society

Anna of 1,000 Faces: Let Me Down Easy on PBS’ Great Performances

Anna of 1,000 Faces: Let Me Down Easy on PBS' Great Performances

Smith as Dean Philip Pizzo

Anna Deavere Smith’s one-woman theatrical performances are so brilliantly drawn, so carefully textured that watching her onstage is always a rich and rewarding experience. Her artistry has been saluted all over the country since the ‘90s, when she captured American theater critics and audiences with two noted theatrical events: Twilight Los Angeles, about the LA riots following the trial of Rodney King, and Fires in the Mirror, about the Crown Heights civil disturbances.

Now another solo performance by Smith, Let Me Down Easy, has become a national theatrical sensation. The play premiered at New York’s Second Stage in the fall of 2009 (“Woman of 1,000 Faces Considers the Body” was headline of the New York Times review) and a national tour followed. PBS recorded it at Washington’s Arena Stage, and Let Me Down Easy will debut on PBS’s Great Performances next Friday, Jan. 13 at 9 p.m.

From the PBS press release:

Conceived, written and performed by Smith in her signature one person performance style, the play examines the miracle of human resilience through the lens of our current national debate on health care. Smith interviewed more than 300 people during her research and traveled to three continents.

Smith, a former Stanford professor, performed Let Me Down Easy in workshop at Stanford in 2006 as she was fine-tuning the piece. She also talked with a range of the medical school’s faculty about medicine, patient care and biomedical research. Philip Pizzo, MD, dean of the school, is one of the characters Smith performs in the play. She found his warning that we are in danger of slipping into a health-care system that “resembles that of a developing nation… unless it’s changed dramatically,” an apt description for the current tumult in U.S. health care.

I did a podcast about Let Me Down Easy with Smith in 2009, and I’ve seen Let Me Down Easy countless times. Each time it stirs me. A different character becomes richer, words are deeper and more meaningful or actions more affecting. You watch as a careful portrait is being drawn on stage. You realize a meticulous artist is at work. Each character is pulling a thread weaving a larger vision. You feel the human clock ticking. As the lives of the characters unfold, you consider too your own – the sorrows and joys of the human experience. Treasure the moment and live with grace. Is that the lesson here? Then a final word. A Buddist monk appears and is bathed in light. He lifts a tea cup and gently pours the water into his open hand. Finished!

Previously: How a med school dean became part of Anna Deavere Smith’s hit play, Playwright takes healthcare to the stage and Let me down easy
Photo by Joseph Sinnott / WNET

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