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Turning Stories Into Communities: Interview with Playwright Anna Deavere Smith

The groundbreaking playwright speaks about her latest work.

Actor, playwright and professor Anna Deavere Smith says her solo shows, where she interviews her subjects and uses their exact words and phrasing, all have to do with social justice in some way. The two most famous are Fires in the Mirror, which dealt with a race riot between neighboring African American and Jewish communities in Brooklyn and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, which examined the racial unrest in Los Angeles after the Rodney King verdict.


In her latest work, Let Me Down Easy, Smith did more than 300 interviews with people about the body – its vulnerability and caring for it. In the play, now at the Berkeley Repertory Theater through July 10, she presents 20 characters including a rodeo rider, a nurse at a hospital during Hurricane Katrina and Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong.

Alternet spoke with Smith about where health care is going, the Rwandan genocide, how theater creates community, and coming back to the San Francisco Bay Area with her latest work.

Emily Wilson: You spoke to more than 300 people on three continents for this show. How did you decide where to go and who to interview?

Anna Deavere Smith: It all started at Yale School of Medicine where they had invited me to come and create a performance for them. They were interested in having me interview doctors and patients. Then I created a piece and did that. After that I was commissioned to make a piece at Stanford Medical School, and that was another bunch of interviews. Then a great supporter of this work, Chula Reynolds, supported me doing a lot of interviews in Texas. I did a trip to Rwanda and Uganda and South Africa although most of that material does not appear in the play. Only one interview out of many I did there appears in the play. I also went to Germany where our air force bases are because overall I was looking at the body as potentially powerful or potentially vulnerable to disease or to decisions of the state, and that’s how I started to think about what I was doing.

Why did Yale hire you?

They were interested in looking at doctors’ abilities to listen or not. It was in 2000, so it was before the health care debate as we know it. But the person who hired me was very forward looking, knowing that there were so many things going against giving good health care or ideally being a healer. Part of it is time and doctors having to negotiate all the time they need to know all the science and technology they need to keep up with.

The other was that by 2000 the health care had been taken over by the marketplace , and by it being in the market, which happened increasingly in the last couple decades, it really has lost its way.

Why did you choose to go to Africa?

Rwanda I went to ten years after the genocide, and I thought it would be very interesting to talk to people whose very life was up for grabs because they looked a certain way, because they were from a certain tribe. That genocide had Rwandas against Rwandas, the Hutus being short, darker people and the Tutsis being taller people. I was interested in the body as vulnerable to the state as opposed to vulnerable to age or illness.

It sounds like you thought of the play as being about the body at first. Did it come to be more about health care?