Turning Stories Into Communities: Interview with Playwright Anna Deavere Smith

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?

When I was coming to New York, the president was unveiling his health care bill. On the eve of his first big speech on health care, the New York Times OpEd editor asked me to put some of my material on the OpEd page. So I saw the value of having the play be the human side of the story that was unfolding and had gotten very heated up in politics.

I did go out and follow the president to town halls in Colorado and Montana and learned materials and put it in previews in New York, but by that time, the play had really found its own metabolism. That would have been a wonderful play, but a different play than the one that had been evolving since 2008. So it was too late to make it pointedly political. It is political because it’s calling out for, as most of my work does, for social justice. It’s calling out for people to be treated fairly in the health care system. The play expresses a concern through the words of the dean of the Stanford Medical School that actually we could be headed to a health care system like one in a developing nation where the people who have get great health care and the people who don’t just don’t and get forgotten and lost.

Bill Moyers said that the play instantly created community. How do you think it creates community?

I’m not sure because it’s Bill Moyers’ observation, but it could be because this play as different from my other well known plays, Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles, which were about race riots. People were very moved by it. Fires in the Mirror created my career as I know it now. But given the people who come to the theater, who for the most part tend to be white, upper class or middle class educated people, who have never experienced a race riot. That audience could be very concerned about this happened in my country and we have to do something about it, and I don’t want this to be the country where my children grow up, or I don’t want to have the biases that I have because I see what the ultimate ramifications could be. That could happen, but the difference between that experience and what I think happens in Let Me Down Easy is because we all are mortal, and everyone is affected by decisions about health care in this country, and we all are vulnerable. The people that we all want to be, they lived a great life, they were 95 years old, up until the day they died, they hiked for two miles a day and had a Scotch every night, ate a little of this, a little of that and never gained a pound. We would love to be that person and not many of us are. This is an extremely personal experience. Even though everybody has a different experience, what the audience for Let Me Down Easy has in common is that the play touches something that is inevitable in their life and the lives of people they love, and, in that way, it’s very democratic.

In your other work you talk to people with radically different views. Did you find people you talked to had radically different views about health care?

Oh, yeah. Particularly in August of 2009, when I went out to these town halls, and I interviewed some Tea Party people, yeah. What interests me about this play is the audience that tends to be advantaged, the character who people most often comment upon is a young woman who is also advantaged. She’s a doctor and was treating people in a hospital for poor people in New Orleans during Katrina. Most people when they talk to me about the play, want to talk about her. What her piece is really asking is, ‘Are we really going to treat poor people so differently than everybody else?’ They were there for six days. Rich people could get out in helicopters and everything else, and FEMA and the government didn’t come get these people. It blew her mind, and they all knew that on the first day. All the nurses, African American nurses, said, ‘We’re going to be stuck here. They’re not coming to get us.’ She thought that was a ridiculous idea and to see that play out really blew her mind. That really speaks to many people in the audience, and that was good news to me that I didn’t really expect. People with advantages, people who are OK, don’t want to think there are people in our country who are profoundly not OK.

Why did you choose to talk to Lance Armstrong?

A lot of people want to know why I have celebrities in the play. Lance and Ann Richardson and Lauren Hutton. In all of my plays, the people are famous in their community. Darell Gates, the police chief of Los Angeles, was famous. The kid who beat up Reginald Denny was famous. Reginald Denny was famous. In Fires in the Mirror, the black activists were famous and the Jewish activists were famous. The difference is this play has a bigger community. This is the community of life and death that we’re all in.

Somebody like Lance represents a person who has an extraordinarily powerful body. He has a body that at one point people thought, ‘Is he even human?

Lauren Hutton was the first supermodel ever. Proportionally, there are no more celebrities in this than in my other plays, it’s just that the so-called community is broader. Lance, who seemed to be absolutely indomitable, was vulnerable – he got cancer. That cancer affected how he did his work when he got well. He would credit in the piece that I do of his would credit the cancer in making him able to organize himself.

What’s it like coming back to Berkley Rep?

I love the Bay Area – it’s so beautiful. Beauty is calming, beauty is inspiring. I love the diversity in the Bay Area. We’ve talked a lot about medicine in this conversation, but what we haven’t talked about is another equally strong element of the play, which is the play shining the light on spirituality. I’m hoping people from all kinds of movements and communities that would be considered spiritual whether it’s a synagogue or a cathedral or a mosque or sand painting ,(laughs) whatever it is. I’m really hoping they will come and see this play. Part of it’s about the body, but if it’s inevitable that the body is not going to remain indomitable, what is the other part of being a human? I’m hoping that my run in Berkeley can attract that community because I know from the different times I’ve lived there in my adult life it’s rich with all of that. Organized religioun, alternatives to organized religion, organized psychiatry. I’m sure there’s some kind of therapy I don’t know about , like softball therapy or something, it’s just full of all that kind of stuff. I’m just hoping what happens at Berkeley is something that hasn’t happened elsewhere in terms of bringing together those communities.


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