Anna Deavere Smith is no doctor but she plays hospital administrator Gloria Akalitus on the hit Showtime series, "Nurse Jackie." Next Wednesday, Smith will be featured at Stanford's Department of Medicine's Grand Rounds, where she'll perform excerpts from her latest play,"Let Me Down Easy", in which her characters confront some profound issues of life and death.
"Let Me Down Easy" (LMDE) has been a work in progress since Smith was commissioned by the Yale School of Medicine to interview patients and doctors and to perform portions of those interviews at Yale's Medical Grand Rounds in the 90s. Smith says as a result of that work she became "very interested in both the health and power of the physical body and its vulnerability to disease and death, but also to the social and political realities in which we live." All she did, Smith says, was turn on her video recorder and ask patients a simple question: "What happened to you?"
The play, which she performed to sold-out audiences off-Broadway for three months at the beginning of the 2010, is now going on the road and will open in Philadelphia in the fall and later in spring 2011 at Washington's Arena Stage.
Smith traveled around the globe (to an AIDS clinic in South Africa and Landstuhl military hospital in Germany, where wounded soldiers from Afghanistan and Iraq are treated) and here in the U.S., including New Orleans after Katrina, to create the piece.
The New York Times' review of the play said:
Ambitious and consistently engaging, Ms. Smith's first major show in more than a decade is rich in anecdotes and observations variously funny, thought-provoking or moving, as it introduces more than two dozen voices speaking of "the fragility and resilience of the human body.
Years ago, Smith created a hybrid sort of approach to theater - documentarian, actress and playwright. In each of her one woman performances, her process is the same: as a journalist she conducts hundreds of interviews on a subject, as a playwright she hones those conversations into a script and then as an actor she performs excerpts of many of those conversations verbatim on stage. Many reviewers of Smith's work have said that she doesn't just capture the content of her characters; rather, she captures their souls.
Among her previous works are two highly celebrated single-themed performances: "Twilight Los Angeles" about the LA riots, and ""Fires in the Mirror" about the 1991 civil disturbance in the Crown Heights section of New York.
Smith's Grand Rounds presentation at Stanford is called "The Scientist and the Healer." Earlier in the year, just as LMDE was being extended off-Broadway, she and I did a 1:2:1 podcast about the play.
I've seen her work for years and LMDE in many phases from workshop to her off-Broadway performance. It never fails to move me and bring me to tears.
Previously: Let Me Down Easy
Photo courtesy of Showtime