Anna Deavere Smith, photo by Sara Krulwich
My first performance of 2010 was the last performance of Let Me Down Easy, a riveting work conceived, written, and performed by the fiercely talented Anna Deavere Smith. After interviewing many people over the past eight years regarding their thoughts on death, dying, the power of the body, health, and health care, Smith portrayed twenty individuals and their exact words on stage with great nuance and sensitivity. She revealed the humor, distress, pessimism, optimism, anger, and energy within each person, and allowed the audience to become more aware of their own humanness and vulnerability. Several of the individuals portrayed are well-known – Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, writer and activist Eve Ensler, former Texas governor Ann Richards, and heavyweight champion boxer Michael Bentt – while others included patients, physicians, a minister, a Buddhist Monk, and Smith’s aunt.
Smith’s portrayal of choreographer Elizabeth Streb (who was in the audience) was hilarious. Wearing thick-rimmed glasses and a striped jacket, she whirled through a story about how she (Streb) caught on fire at a party, capturing Streb’s animated way of moving, speaking, and gesturing. Apparently, it was “one of the most profound experiences” of her life. In other portrayals, Smith revealed the growing disillusionment of Dr. Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, who was working at a public hospital in New Orleans – without electricity – shortly after Hurricane Katrina struck; the conviction of Eve Ensler regarding society’s effect on young girls’ self-esteem; the fear of failure that motivated Lance Armstrong to win the Tour de France, because failure as a cancer patient would have meant death.
Considering how devoid of emotion the topics of health, health care, and the body can be these days, it was refreshing to watch Smith infuse her portrayals with warmth, honesty, and real emotions that the individuals expressed in their interviews with her. Let Me Down Easy was a poignant and powerful production that will hopefully return to the stage again in the future.