Sunday, March 13, 2011

Anna Deveare Smith: Lessons on Living and Dying

Anna Deveare Smith's Let Me Down Easy once again demonstrates that the usual terms are not sufficient for what she accomplishes on stage. As in her most famous theatrical work, Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, Smith portrays many real-life characters, but “one-woman show” is not quite right. She places Lance Armstrong before us with as much force as she depicts Eve Ensler or Rev. Peter Gomes, and she does so by impeccably reproducing their accents, inflections, and gestures, and yet “impersonation” is not what we witness.

Part of what takes Smith’s work to another level is its commitment to testimony. As countless theorists have found, testimony is life-affirming because, by definition, it involves direct address. When a human being shares her story and another listens, the interlocutor becomes a witness.

In signature Smith style, Let Me Down Easy is composed of a series of monologues based on verbatim excerpts from face-to-face conversations. The twenty stories represented on stage are drawn from 320 interviews that Smith conducted on three continents. The monologues address the power of the human body as well as its limitations. They also explore the mental and spiritual aspects of both maximizing one’s physical potential and facing one’s mortality. Taken together, the monologues offer a powerful commentary on health care, the lack of it, and the implications of both. Smith became a witness for all 320 interviewees. And, she gives audiences an opportunity to bear witness to the humanity of the twenty people featured in this incarnation of the show—people who “have come through something.”

Because these are stories of real life, Let Me Down Easy highlights inequalities. For example, in the monologue titled “Heavy Sense of Resignation,” Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, a doctor at Charity Hospital in New Orleans, shares her experience of Hurricane Katrina. She explains that she had always insisted that limited financial resources did not keep the hospital from offering quality care. However, when it was clear that Charity was not being evacuated so that patients could avoid danger—while other hospitals were—she found it more difficult to maintain a cheerful bedside manner. Still, what she remembers most vividly is that her (mostly black) staff and patients were not surprised that authorities had apparently forgotten them. She confessed, “the fact that it wasn’t a shock was a shock for me.” As she shares her story, she still seems stunned: “It was the first time that I’d been abandoned by my government.” Very clearly, she was surrounded by people for whom this was not the first time.

While Smith channels Kurtz-Burke, we see the profound effect of stepping into another person’s point of view. With both her head and heart, she acknowledges that the country of her birth claims to value equality while treating its citizens very differently. More than that, she actually stopped to consider what that reality might feel like when, for an entire lifetime, one is not on the privileged end of that differential treatment.

Yet, without fail, Let Me Down Easy resists sentimentality; every emotion serves to inspire thought long afterward. This is particularly true of the show’s insistence that living and dying are inextricably linked. As palliative care specialist Eduardo Bruera puts it, people generally face death like they faced life. That is, if you were angry, you will probably be angry. Those who tend to retreat will probably withdraw, and those who blame will probably blame.

Having been touched by these stories, I went home thinking. If we die as we lived, then I am happy with many of the priorities I have kept, but there is always room for improvement. So, as I strive to live life in a way that will allow me to greet death with grace, Let Me Down Easy has inspired me to be more deliberate about becoming a witness for the experiences of my fellow human beings. How can I listen better today? How can I learn from others with both my head and heart? And how can I let that learning not only inform my outlook, but also shape what I believe merits saying out loud?

Let Me Down Easy has been recorded and will air on PBS during the 2011-2012 season of Great Performances. I hope it inspires you to take a similar challenge to live with intention.