Voice of America

Playwright and performer Anna Deavere Smith has made a career of telling other people's stories

Although known by many Americans for her portrayal as Dr. Nancy McNally, the national security advisor on NBC’s The West Wing, or as Gloria Akalitus, the nursing manager on Showtime’s Nurse Jackie, Anna Deavere Smith’s lauded stage career has brought many more faces to audiences across the country. Because when Smith, a two-time Tony nominee, takes the stage, she presents the ordinary thoughts and emotions of even the most extraordinary Americans.

Anna Deavere Smith
Anna Deavere Smith
(Photo by Mary Ellen Mark)

From Brent Williams, a bull-rider who faced serious injuries through his sport, to Hazel Merritt, an older woman who relays a horrible experience faced by a family member that stayed with her when she faced her own illness in later years, the characters in her latest tour de force, Let Me Down Easy, now at Arena Stage, are everyday Americans who opened up to Smith about their most private thoughts and fears.

Except when they have extraordinary fame. When Smith portrays seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong or the late Texas Gov. Ann Richards, Smith will dig deeper to find the connections. Whether channeling Armstrong’s drive to win or Richards’s search to preserve her ”chi,” their hopes echo in Williams and Merritt and all of the other stories she brings to life in the one-person show.

Why do people share their stories with Smith?

Smith said her pediatrician – also a mentor – told her when expressing her surprise that Smith was pursuing acting and not a field like social work, ”I think that people would think you could understand.”

As Smith’s success proves, they do.

Smith’s format of collecting interviews and presenting them – as a compelling story, alone, onstage – has been a part of her work from the beginning. As she said when she sat down recently with Metro Weekly, ”I love people and I love ideas.”

But, with Smith, it’s much more. She has spent much of her career examining some of what she perceives as the more uncomfortable American conversations, from the racial unrest at the heart of Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 or the health care system and, ultimately, our own mortality at issue in Let Me Down Easy.

When portraying Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, a young, white doctor working at New Orleans’s Charity Hospital during the crisis following Hurricane Katrina, Smith strikes the only note of the show that approaches hopelessness. The segment is even titled ”A Heavy Sense of Resignation,” and Smith said that Kurtz-Burke – working in a hospital serving some of the poorest patients – is talking about ”the resignation of the black nurses and black staff members” to ”the fact of being abandoned.”

”Five days out,” Smith said of Kurtz-Burke’s experience of not knowing if or when they would be rescued. ”Nobody’s there to help, still.”

For Smith, however, Kurtz-Burke’s story isn’t one of hopelessness. ”I think, ‘What a privilege she has to so fully have the window opened on another experience’ – because most of us don’t get to do that in our lives. We know our experience, and the experience of the people we love. We try to think about what somebody else experiences, but it’s very hard.”

Although Smith isn’t sure of her next project after finishing the tour of Let Me Down Easy, which next goes to Columbus, Ohio, she knows there is more to tell.

”There’s never a lack of stories,” she says.

METRO WEEKLY: After interviewing people and creating a show focused on health care, what was the experience like for you of watching the nation go through a similar type of process with the health care reform bill debate?

ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: The person who was really ahead of the time here was Dr. Ralph Horwitz, who commissioned me to come to Yale Medical School in the late ’90s because what he was concerned about was doctors, and do they listen well enough to their patients to be able to really take care of them. In other words, the 20th century has delivered a medical profession that can do remarkable things. They can transplant organs, they can do all these things. They can diagnostically see inside cells, they can see inside genes, they can do all these things. But does that mean that they have produced a league of healers, or is it just that they have produced a league of scientists?

MW: That idea – the relationship of a doctor as a scientist versus a healer – I’m thinking back to early in the AIDS

epidemic, that people were looking for both.

SMITH: When you think about those early days – which I don’t know a lot about because I was in San Francisco in the ’70s. I arrived in school in 1972. All of these things were going on, and then I left right as that all happened. San Francisco was at the height of the baths and all this stuff.

But then I went back to make a piece about San Francisco in the late ’80s and was talking to some of the doctors. Man, you just felt like they had been in a war zone. They still didn’t know how to talk about it. My doctor now, who is a pulmonary guy, thought he was going to be dealing with asthma and stuff and suddenly this thing hits. Even when he talks about it now, it’s like, wow, he was in a real war. And when you’re in a war like that, you just have to do whatever is required. And that may be science or it may be praying.

I went down to Haiti in May and met this amazing doctor who works for Partners in Health, Paul Farmer’s organization. He walked me down to the part of the hospital in Port-au-Prince where the morgue was and talked about these trucks coming with just truckloads of bodies and just dumping them. And he looked down at his feet and he said, ”I can’t wear the shoes I was wearing then. I just can’t put ‘em on.”

These people were really in a war, fighting a war against death. That is a different kind of medicine, and my sense is that [it was similar] at the time of the AIDS epidemic.

MW: More broadly, where are we at now?

SMITH: As we begin to see the gaps in resources, we begin to understand that we can’t have everything. Even stuff like how you become a more reliable partner in your own health – in maintaining the health that you have. That’s a big project, and it’s being played out in the political arena. But it’s ultimately going to have to play out — as the play indicates at one point — culturally.

MW: There’s a scene with the dean of the School of Medicine at Stanford University, Philip Pizzo, where he talks about ”[t]he kind of discussion … that a doctor may need to have with her or his patient about death and dying” – and the difficulties and impediments to that discussion. I found that particularly striking in light of the political obsession we faced in this country with ”death panels.” It was Pizzo almost saying what any observer of that experience could say: Americans aren’t able to handle this discussion.

SMITH: And he’s only talking about that discussion inasmuch as he’s saying, ”Because we spend so much money on this time [at the end of life] and the beginning of life, we’re going to have to talk about it, whether we like it or not.” He’s not proposing one thing or other; he’s just saying, ”Even if this is going to be an economic discussion, inevitably, we’re going to have to talk about it.”

There’s a lot about him that talks the way a pediatrician would talk to you bringing the bad news. He’s saying, ”Now, this is going to hurt. You’re going to have to have a needle. It’s going to hurt.” That’s what I hear him saying.

MW: Do you think that the country has moved forward on the discussion of health care at all?

SMITH: No. Now we’re going to have another moment that could be going backwards. But I think the positive way to look at that is that people who are proponents of the president’s plan will see this repeal time as an opportunity to make it clearer what’s in the bill. I don’t think anybody believes they did a very good job of that the first time around.

What must Brown v. Board of Education have looked like? We don’t think about a whole bunch of legal arguments or paper with Brown v. Board of Ed. What do we think of? The National Guard walking a little, precious black girl to school. When we think of the civil rights movement, we don’t think of all of the paper and all of the words. We think of water fountains, we think of dogs, we think of fire hoses, we think of the songs that we loved, we think about Aretha Franklin singing ”Think About It.”

And that’s where art comes in. I think that the president could use some help from culture and from artists, really. Nobody dictated that you’d have all that extraordinary art that came about in the civil rights movement, but there’s no way that would have happened in this country without that.

MW: A lot of the discussion within the LGBT community last year relating to ”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and how DADT moved ahead of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and job protections was about the pictures, and that a person in uniform is a person in uniform. You don’t see gay, straight, bi. You see Dan Choi. You see Victor Fehrenbach. You see Margaret Witt.

SMITH: Well said. And you see – because of that image of that uniform – that regardless of what’s inside that uniform, you understand. When I see a serviceman in the airport, the first thing I think is they’re risking their life for me. And I always say thank you for everything you’re doing for this country.

During the Vietnam era, that’s not what I said. It’s an image that means a certain thing in its certain time, and you’re absolutely right that in this case, it trumped everything else.

MW: You talked with Lauren Hutton for the show. At one point she says, ”I came from a serious working-class family. I just changed classes,” which was striking in a way. You talk about the advantage of being able to look for multiple viewpoints. What she was describing seems to be the basis of a lot of your work.

SMITH: That’s right.

MW: This idea that we need to be able to see things from different perspectives and the awful result if we can’t.

SMITH: But listen, I think it’s a privilege. It is a gift when you’re given the opportunity to see that. That thing, of seeing into somebody else’s life, somebody else’s heart, somebody else’s fear – as an actor, if I can ever get that glimmer, that’s what I’m trying to do. I see it as what the work is of my particular study.

Hazel Merritt, for example, who had that terrible experience of the blood flying everywhere and all of that, her doctor had called me, some years after I had been at Yale, and knowing that I was turning it into a play, said, ”I want to introduce you to my patient, Hazel Merritt, who is refusing dialysis. I think you will find her very interesting.” So, I went up to Yale, I did the interview.

He came to see the play, and he said, ”I didn’t know that. I didn’t know she’d had that experience.” And this is a wonderful doctor – one of the best in the world. He was pleased to have this information.

MW: You love theater, but you go about it in a very professorial way. You’ve talked about academia, and you’ve worked with the Center for American Progress. What is it that led you to think about making this sort of theater a part of your life’s work?

SMITH: Well, I wasn’t a professor when I started doing this work. I was a kid in acting school trying to figure out how I would be able to, on a regular basis – without depending on getting a job – practice. Pianists can practice, swimmers can practice, tennis players can practice, oboe players can practice, painters can practice – and even if a dancer is not in a company, they can practice. But how was I going to refine my art form if I didn’t have a job or if, when I did get a job, they were like little, tiny, walk-on parts? I mean, people would make fun of me: ”Where is she?” I’d be off in some rehearsal hall doing my voice warm-ups endlessly, and saying my lines over and over, to walk on and say two lines. And there’s just so much that you can justify.

My dog is a mutt, but she’s partly an Australian cattle dog. When I got her, people said, ”You’re going to have to keep that dog interested. Maybe you should send her out to herd some sheep because she has got to have a job.” And, if somebody’s doing any work anywhere nearby, Memphis is running around. If there’s a workman, she’s running around following that workman. She’s a work dog.

I am a work person. I need to be working. I need to be practicing. So, in part, I was creating a practice. And, that practice ended up [being] talking to real people so that I could learn more about the time that I live in. I had a classical training in a book that was always so interesting to me. It’s this little, tiny book by a woman called [E.M.W.] Tillyard called The Elizabethan World Picture, which is about how we can look at passages of Shakespeare and understand the world that he was in. We could understand what he was smelling; we could understand what he was looking at – how he lived his life. And so I thought, ”Wow, if I could get these fragments of people talking to me, then maybe there’d be some people in my audience who could appreciate it as a sort of a photograph of the time.”

Anna Deavere Smith
Anna Deavere Smith
(Photo by Mary Ellen Mark)

Because people are bearing witness, not just to an event around them, but they’re really telling us how they lived. That’s always interested me.

I did, for example, some interviews down at Monticello. I was introduced to a young archeologist who was just doing the first dig of the slaves’ quarters at Monticello. We spent some time in his workspace looking at these little pieces of porcelain that the slaves were given – the broken cups and pieces of pottery that were used. So there’s this interesting juxtaposition of fine china and the life of a slave. I see that. And, you know, me being in academia is this kind of quirky outgrowth that wasn’t really my intention – this quirky outgrowth of my fascination with process. Because you can’t market process anywhere.

The stuff that I read as inspiration was pretty conservation about what we did – not the way we behaved, but what we did. It was white, male writers. I don’t think they produced one woman’s play the entire time I was there in the conservatory. It was great writers, but it was, you know, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, blah, blah, blah. That was it, man. I was kind of forced, because I was so interested in process, to read other stuff. So I read about these great collaborations that happened in the ’60s. Sam Shepard was in San Francisco when I was there with his company. I was very inspired by Joe Chaikin. I was very inspired by reading about the Free Southern Theater – who went down, did plays and got shot at trying to get the vote for black people. But that was all over by the time I got out. It was done.

What was I going to do? I couldn’t have a company. I realized once I got out of school that if I wanted a rehearsal space, I had to rent it. Where was the money going to come from? So, originally, the classroom – and I was good at it – was a place where I could remain interested in process, because the only place you can market process is in a school.

So, after one year of teaching at Carnegie Mellon, which was amazing, they hired me as an assistant professor. One year of it, and I was like, ”I’m outta here. I’d rather walk dogs. I gotta go back to New York.” So, that’s what I did. I walked dogs. People couldn’t believe I would leave a tenure-track position. ”You are an African American, you’re a woman, you’re an artist, you’re leaving a tenure-track position? You’re crazy.” It’s a good thing I did because I ended up figuring out a way to get a rehearsal hall, figuring out how to do the work I wanted to do, and that was the beginning of the work I do now.

I don’t think of myself as professorial at all. Frankly, I ask more questions than is usually allowed in the academy. As a scholar, you’re expected to have knowledge. What I do for a living is ask questions, and listen to others.

MW: That’s not a bad thing.

SMITH: Well, that’s what I do, so it’s a little upside-down.

MW: A lot of people go back and forth between stage and screen, but I see your academic interest almost as an outgrowth of the type of work you do in the theater.

SMITH: I love people and I love ideas. People keep changing in reality, and ideas keep changing, so the only way that I can be in very close proximity to that amazing, constant evolution every day is to have multiple ways of involving myself with ideas.

Students are one way. I have some great students. I’m interested in their ideas. I want was to know how their imaginations work, and if they were in a play of mine, I might not be able to. Maybe, if I the kind of person who liked to hang out – I’m not going to ever be the person who, after rehearsal, is going to go hang out and have a beer with everybody. It’s not my temperament.

So, it’s another way to be involved in the exchange of ideas. In my classes, I don’t lecture. I set up a situation where they fill the entire three hours with their imagination, and I just love it. I love that. And the only place I know that that can happen is in the university.

MW: What is your temperament?

SMITH: When I went home to tell people I was going to be an actor, one person who was really important to me – one of the ”grown-ups” in my society – said, ”I’m very surprised.” She said, ”I just don’t see you wanting to be up there in front of people.” I said, ”What did you think I would do?” She said, ”Well, I thought you’d be, like, a social worker.” I said, ”Well, why’d you think that?” She started crying. This had been my pediatrician, who I so admired because in Baltimore there weren’t a whole lot of black women doctors. She was a mansion of accomplishment to me, and she started crying.

She said, ”I think that people would think you could understand. I thought you would do something more like that.”

And there is a sort of a miracle that I go out there, I have to say. I would like to be like the kid in Elaine Stritch’s wonderful show. She talks about opening night of The Member of the Wedding, with little Brandon De Wilde running up and down when they called places, knocking on everybody’s door, going, ”It’s time! It’s time!” And I saw that in her play, and I was like, ”I wish I were like that.”

So, I think there is something about me that is very — shy, maybe, is the word — and then something that has a great, great, great, great desire to be expressive. So, it’s the two contradictions.

MW: You were talking about the playwrights and white men’s productions. You’ve obviously worked a lot with Aaron Sorkin and there’s been a lot of criticism of his female characters in The Social Network and the idea that they’re sort of two-dimensional. What was your experience?

SMITH: Oh, I think that – I think Aaron Sorkin is – well, we overuse the ”G” word, we overuse the ”B” word. I always thought that The West Wing should have gotten a Pulitzer Prize.

For example, with Allison Janney’s work. I will say that being on that set there was so much that was in great respect and a great deal of love for her gift. And, certainly, the work supported that. Please, come on. And, I think that Annette Bening’s character in The American President is a very complicated woman. Wonderful.

So, I guess I don’t understand that and even though I haven’t seen The Social Network – I mean, I don’t know what is one-dimensional, what is two-dimensional, who knows? But you could never say across the board that he is anything less than very successful at creating human beings regardless of their gender. That’s my experience with his work.

MW: What do you want to do, moving forward?

SMITH: I don’t know. I’m thinking about going back home, for the first time. My journey on the road in search for American character, which, as I mentioned, started in the ’70s, the aspiration was to – I thought I’d be talking to trout fishermen and bull-riders and such.

I obviously have a great love of trying to shed a light on the need for greater social justice, wherever I go. And I champion vulnerable people, but it meant a lot to me to meet the bull-rider who’s in this show. My opposite in so many ways, and I love him and I think he cares a lot about me. I’ve brought him to New York a couple of times, and I’ve led with him in a New York Times op-ed. I have a lot of admiration for him.

And it may be that having met him and feeling such a bond with him, I feel that I’ve done my stretch. That character has been with me in terms of performance since 2003. And so I think that I would like to do something about my hometown, Baltimore. That might be next.

But who knows? I’ve got to finish this tour. I’m going to Ohio, Philadelphia, San Diego. This tour takes a lot of attention.

There’s never a lack of stories, so, we’ll see.

MW: I want to talk with you for a moment about your personal life, because there’s nothing about your personal life. Anywhere.

SMITH: Well, I don’t talk about my personal life. In part, because of my goal to give it up to the characters. Obviously, people think I’m a liberal – actually, until this year, I was an independent – but I try to give the blank slate.

I also made a real choice when I started working that it wouldn’t be about me, even at a time when – as Henry Louis Gates, the great scholar, wrote – most African-American writers’ first works were autobiographical. And I am not. That’s not what I’m about.

Look, there’s a lot of identity on parade. I don’t think we need any more of it from me.

Anna Deavere Smith performs Let Me Down Easy through Feb. 13 in Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theater at the Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 6th St. NW. For tickets, $55-$100, call 202-488-3300 or visit arenastage.org.

Smith will also take part in a “Performance and Conversation, featuring portraits from Let Me Down Easy” at the Clarice Smith Center’s Kay Theatre on the campus of the University of Maryland, March 8 and 9 at 8 p.m. Call 301-405-2787 or visit claricesmithcenter.umd.edu.

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