Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Let Me Down Easy

Friday evening I went to see Anna Deavere Smith’s one woman play, Let Me Down Easy. I’ve always been drawn to Smith’s previous work. I’ve enjoyed the clips I’ve seen of both Twilight and Fires in the Mirror, read the scripts of both, worked with congregations on staging excerpts from each, and had detailed discussions around the topics each raised. I’ve listened to Smith reading her book Letters to a Young Artist and found many of her reflections insightful. Friday night was the first time, however, that I actually saw her perform live. The meticulous way in which Smith captures an individual by capturing their speech syntax, their way of holding their carriage, and their small probably unconscious fidgeting has always impressed me, but watching her in person, the physicality of the way in which she defines each person is even more amazing than on film.

I’m not sure what the exact focal topic of the show was meant to be. The playbill said that Let Me Down Easy began as a commission for the Yale School of Medicine, which makes a lot of sense given the twenty vignettes presented. Among the stories we have are Lance Armstrong, touching briefly on his battle with cancer while focusing on his career and why he was able to win the Tour de France so many times; former Texas governor Ann Richards talking about how she had to hold onto her chi as she fought her illness; supermodel Lauren Hutton talking about the medical care she received in her early 50s after being in a devastating bike accident; Ruth Katz, a dean at Yale Medical Center, who discusses how badly she was treated at Yale Hospital until a resident discovered who she was; and heavyweight champion Michael Bentt talking about “seeing light” and then learning from doctors that he can never fight again.

But there are also stories from folks like Elizabeth Streb, the intensely physical “Extreme Action” choreographer, about how she had planned to set herself on fire in a controlled way that got out of control and Eve Ensler, talking about the connection between food and life and how was Tina Turner was really able to “be in her vagina”. And then there are characters that strongly call up the need for better health care—a mother who talks about a horrendous experience she and her daughter had while the daughter was receiving dialysis, a rodeo rider talking about the health care he was given after a riding accident, and the director of an orphanage in Johannesburg that cares for dying children.

Perhaps the ambiguity in focus is meant to be there. The title comes from the opening monologue in which Smith channels Jim Cone, Union Theological Seminary’s professor (and does such a wonderful job of it that she had me chuckling at how she’d captured his pomposity in both the resonance of his voice and his mannerisms). Cone explains that the phrase ‘let me down easy’ is a phrase that captures a heart broken by a lack of justice and connects it with both African-American theology and jazz. When asked if it could also be about dying, Cone pauses then says that, yes, it could, much like “swing low, sweet chariot” can be a song of justice coming or of dying.

That’s make sense. There are several memorable portraits where where broken hearts (often from lack of justice on health care) and dying often overlap. One that stood out was of the physician that was working at Charity Hospital in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. She speaks of how she was determined to show her patients, who were the poorest in the area, that they deserved and would get the same kind of care while at Charity that wealthier patients received elsewhere. And then, as Katrina hits and FEMA ignores Charity while evacuating the other hospitals, her heart breaks as she wakes up to te reality of the situation.

This physician was one of the three portrayals that stood out from the others for me. The other two were of a musicologist from Notre Dame, who talks about Franz Schubert’s weaving of his dying into his music and of her love for him and Lorraine Coleman, Smith’s aunt, who tells of seeing her dying sister and the last thing she said to her but who also talks about how when they were poor and had no gloves, her mother would put her children’s hands under her arms to warm them. Coleman laments how now, in her old age, she’d like to be able to put her hands under her mother’s arms one more time.

By her actions and speech patterns, Smith does a great job of transitioning from character to character. She does so on a stage that, when I first sat down, seemed fairly stark—a couch and coffee table, a dining room table, and some mirrors are the basic set. As the play went on, items (jackets, trays with food, etc.) were brought on to introduce a new character and then put down somewhere on the stage as Smith transitioned to the next portrait. After a few such transitions, I became aware of how amazing the actual set was. The way the mirrors were positioned, for example, meant that, at least from where I was sitting, each mirror presented a part of the room in such a way that you only saw items from an individual character in it and were able to get a visual snapshot of that character’s story. It added a whole new depth to the presentation.

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