For the past three decades, Anna Deavere Smith has always performed barefoot - while at the same time walking in the well worn crocs of doctors, or trading them in for the stilettos of super models without breaking her stride. She has lived in the dying bodies of cancer-patients, solemnly donned the cassock of a priest, and inhabited an inmate who had lost any hope of salvation. She believes that words dress the soul. Regardless of their age, gender, race, or profession, she has taken the words of countless real-life characters and, like an amplifier, has magnified and articulated their most inner thoughts and feelings to theater-goers around the country. As a student of life, she has traveled across the U.S. and beyond, using theater as a tool to "meet people and explore ideas." An award-winning playwright and actor, she creates ground-breaking performances that blur the line between theater and journalism, using voice-recordings from real-life encounters to create gripping portraits. In her latest one woman show, Let Me Down Easy, now in its final weeks at the Second Stage Theater on Broadway, she explores ideas about the human body, its resilience and its vulnerability. At a time of debate around "death panels", Ms. Smith brings to life a rich, diverse range of perspectives on how we live and die in America today.
After watching Ms. Smith perform at the TED conference a few years ago and again at the Second Stage Theater at the end of November, I was eager to find out more about her career, her latest work, and her thoughts on the President's health care reform agenda. I met with her on a brisk New York winter day. I walked out of the elevator of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel into their 35th floor lounge to find Ms. Smith, elegantly dressed in a deep purple velvet dress, under a cream colored blazer. Sitting there, unaware I had arrived, I saw her framed against a beautiful view of Central Park West. Graceful, soft-spoken and serene, to see her out of character nonchalantly sitting in the middle of a restaurant was as evocative as seeing her live on stage where her electric performances keep her audience emotionally engaged from beginning to end.
Pulling out my tape recorder, I was immediately aware of how ordinary the act must be for her. Jokingly, I asked if she had any advice on the use of the recorder. She told me it was always best to use the old fashioned micro-cassette versions. Ms Smith confessed that, after following the counsel of her good friend Samantha Power and traveling to Rwanda to conduct interviews, ten years after the genocide, when she was first beginning her research for Let Me Down Easy, it was the use of a digital device that led to her losing some of the interviews that she had recorded there. The data could not be recovered, and she could not help but imagine that if by chance "some indiscretion (as per Tiger Woods) was included in said files, they would probably have been miraculously found."
Ms. Smith believes that we all speak in organic poems. Her performances, curated monologues, are culled verbatim, syllable for syllable, breath for breath, from the thousands of interviews that she has conducted in the past twenty some odd years. I wanted to pay a similar tribute to her art.
YA: I am intrigued by life's trajectory, the gap between where one aims and where the dart actually lands. One of the things I like to ask when meeting someone for the first time is: "What did you want to be when you grow up?"
ADS: Hmm, well, I actually wanted to be a psychiatrist, but I went to see West Side Story and I couldn't stop crying. My mother said, 'That's it! you are too sensitive you can't be a psychiatrist.' And, you know, I think that stuck in my head, and then, little did she know that what I would do is something that requires me to ultimately be more empathic than a psychiatrist, because I can't really sit back, and, interpret what people do as pathology, and I just interpret what they do as, as their mythology...
YA: How much do you hold back when you are interviewing someone?
ADS: Hmm, I don't know, I think it's probably very fluid you know... but I don't ask very many questions. In the case of this project, a lot of times the question was as simple as 'What happened?' You know, it's not in this version of the play, but I did a lot of interviews while I was doing research for this play in Rwanda ten years after the genocide, so that's an example of where all I had to say was 'what happened?' to the Tutsis, and with the few Hutus that I interviewed, it was "what were you accused of?" or "what did you do?" and then people often told me. That was one of the appealing things to me about this project is that people, were, eager to--in whatever venue, whether it was a hospital or in that case Rwanda, people were eager to--talk, and my overall work, is called "On the road, a search of the American character" and I have been doing that overall work for, since, the end of the seventies, through this one. Yeah, this play is a, a, this play is one in that long series. And my objective is to get people to talk about whatever they want to talk about and I'm, I'm really a student of language and linguistic habits..
ADS: Well, habits. Habits and how people break habits. How nobody talks like anybody else, that's my interest. You know, I mentioned as a child I wanted to be a psychiatrist, but then what I ended up studying, I didn't come to the theater until I was much older --I was already out of college and everything -- but what I studied was languages and so, of course, then I thought I might be a linguist. So that's really my attraction and probably what keeps me in the theater. I see myself as not a typical theater person, but a person who uses the theater as a place to meet people and explore ideas.
YA: At the TED conference in 2005, you spoke of Ms. Young Sun Han, a Korean Shopkeeper, about her feelings in regards to the Los Angeles race riot of 1992. She had shared with you her discontent towards African-Americans and what had happened then. As an African American person, how did you manage to get such honesty from her when you interviewed her?
ADS: Well, there are two things going on there. One is that, to make that play I interviewed over 300 people, to make this play I interviewed over 300 people and in that play, you know, again, my objective was to get people to talk, so, the riot, it really shook this country to its core. And the people in LA were really a wreck by the time I arrived there with my tape recorder so all kinds of people spoke openly to me, the chief of police who was the most unpopular person, Daryl Gates met with me twice, why would he meet with me? African American. Woman. Liberal. From New York. Reginald Denny met with me. One of the jurors from the first trial where the officers walked, white, you know, they were all white jurors, met with me, wept. People were so shaken up that they wanted to talk. That's one of 'em, so, and that's also the kind of place where I want to go with my tape recorder, again, where people are ripe to be talking.
But the other thing that happened with with Mrs. Young Sun Han, was that soon after I arrived in LA, I got a -- I know it was soon because it was before I got an apartment I was living in a hotel -- I got a a phone call and I don't know how these kids got my hotel -- I don't know but I got this phone call and in my hotel room saying that they heard what I was doing they were masters degree students at UCLA. Korean American. And they said we heard what you are doing, and, we think you are gonna to get it wrong. And so I was like 'Oh my God.' I mean you know identity politics, I thought, this is awful. And then there was a pause, and they said: so we wanna help you. And they hooked up with me and they took me all over the place, introduced me to their community, they were the complete buffer, they translated, they took me to their churches, their parents took me out to meals, they were unbelievable and they, two of those young Korean American girls were sitting at the coffee table, on the floor with me and Mrs. Young Sun Han. Yeah, sure, I can credit myself, but it's really them. If those two women wouldn't have been there, I don't think she would have let me into her home and it was really just a beautiful moment, with a woman of an older generation and these young girls telling me what had happened.
YA: Let's talk about something very present on many people's minds right now. Do you think the current administration is trying to Let Us Down Easy? What are your thoughts about the current health care bill? Is it better to pass an imperfect bill or no bill at all?
ADS: We have to have something. The problem with the current situation is that it is all cluttered by politics. The way things are going now, the system can't sustain itself. The problem is that in Washington they really have an upside down idea about [health] care on every level. I think that at this point we have to have something. Something to build upon. [the imperfection of the bill] will force other entities outside of government to be creative and fill in the holes.
YA: What do you consider your greatest achievement?
ADS: Ha. Let me think, I mean I could be flip and say learning to skip rope, I could consider that an achievement.
YA: I read that you make your drama students at NYU skip rope for twenty minutes at the beginning of every class.
ADS: Make them? They don't jump for that long. Fifteen. Ten sometimes. But you know the thing is, universities are in a way a very very critically important place to study art and performance, but they are also a weird place. And I find, and I have been teaching since 1973, you have to get people out of that mind-set of being so smart and not wanting to appear silly and not willing to appear in any way foolish. You have to get everyone start from the same place. You are not going to get what I have to give if you come in with a particular mindset. So the jumping is part of getting all of the students at the same level. They are all out of breath and start from the same footing. Change the expectations.
YA: What has been your biggest challenge during the creation of your work?
ADS: What was really interesting to me from the beginning was understanding the human body. The resilience of the human body on the one hand, the vulnerability on the other, and the inevitable. Knowing that we don't live forever. And so my friend Samantha Power said to me, you are dealing with the body you have to go to Rwanda. And going to Rwanda really changed everything. All of the expectations that I had of this project were no longer the same after all of the conversations that happened there.
Actually, being taken for example to a place where we looked at several corpses, rooms and rooms full of corpses. This really brought me to a place where I better understood the vulnerability that I was going to have to face. Death became a very real thing in my mind at that point. This experience affected the way that I interviewed and understood all of the people that I would meet in the years to follow.
YA: What was your ultimate goal with this project?
ADS: I think that for me, the one thing that I wanted to accomplish was to create something that is beautiful. I wanted it to be beautiful. The people that I was interviewing were people that were often caught in the throes of something that is potentially disturbing. Something that could be perceived as negative or distressful. And the way I see it, art is linked to hope. Artists are the people that no matter what, pick up the pen, pick up a paintbrush. They take the time to translate what is happening to create something that resonates deeply with the rest of the people that are caught in the middle of their own reality.