Let Me Down Easy: Broad Stage, 7/22/11

26 07 2011

Very few things can be called universal in the human experience, but death is one certainty. In an illuminating and virtuosic solo performance, Anna Deavere Smith embodies a beautiful mosaic of individuals interviewed on life, death, and the care of the human body and soul — if you believe in one, that is. Cutting across a wide range of professions, races, religions, social classes, and other constructed differences, Let Me Down Easy reaches for a humanity that binds us all.

In prior solo pieces, Smith places broken communities in conversation, juxtaposing radically different perspectives on shattering events like the 1991 Crown Heights riots (Fires in the Mirror) or LA’s own 1992 riots following the Rodney King trial (Twilight: Los Angeles). Her body is a vehicle for discussion, debate, and progress towards healing. In this unique form of documentary theater, Smith adopts the accents, speech patterns, and physical mannerisms of each interviewee — and the audience adopts Smith’s initial position as the interviewer, provoking the conversation, attentively observing and listening. These acts of displacement encourage a sympathetic inhabiting of another person’s position.

Let Me Down Easy was not inspired by a specific incident, so its interviews may seem a disparate and unfocused bunch — from authors to choreographers to boxers, from atheists to Buddhist monks. But perhaps the sharpest and most interesting divide that Smith attempts to heal in Let Me Down Easy is that of social class: a very real divide not often addressed in the US. It is unlikely that this diverse array of characters, from bull riders to celebrity bicyclists, would ever meet to have a meaningful conversation in real life. Yet in this 90-minute show, their viewpoints converge in Smith’s transmutable body.

If anyone were to achieve immortality on this earth, it would likely be the wealthy and the visible: politicians, celebrities, etc. Tour de France victor Lance Armstrong lounges in his comfy domain with a full meal laid before him. Ann Richards assembles a team of the best medical professionals to treat her cancer and receives the newest medicines available – all a part of her good “chi.” And supermodel Lauren Hutton simply has “mojo”; posing for photo opps throughout her interview, Hutton reminds us how media visibility and affluence make such a difference in the systems that sustain one’s life, from medical care to food to faith.

Anna Deavere Smith endears herself to the audience with a few lighthearted sketches of familiar characters before cutting to what is arguably the core of the show: the middle and lower classes, the underrepresented majority navigating the US health care system. The media touts miraculous medical advances and promises to sustain life — but for whom? Smith brings necessary visibility to the struggles of the “average” American citizen, like a bull rider from Idaho who suffers a nearly catastrophic injury and a mother who can’t trust her local hospital with her daughter’s chemo treatments.

In the most poignant moments of the show, Smith turns to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina: one of our nation’s biggest embarrassments, a perfect storm of unresolved class and race tensions in the US. Most of Smith’s sketches are marked by a distinct break between characters, but there is no separating the bodies of Ruth Katz and Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, a patient at Yale New Haven Hospital and physician at Charity Hostpital of New Orleans respectively. Smith’s physicality seamlessly melds from Katz to Kurtz-Burke, and the women’s stories link as both get a shocking glimpse of the government’s abandonment of their lower-class citizens. When temporarily knocked from the privileged class, these women begin to grasp the alternate realities of life and death for the lower classes. Smith points these alternate realities to a global scale in her gripping embodiment of Trudy Howell, an orphanage director in South Africa who must prepare her sickly children for death as best she can: turning to God.

Those able to afford a ticket to Anna Deavere Smith at The Broad Stage are part of the privileged classes who do not often encounter such stories. These are the audiences who most need to hear them, who can use their greater financial means and political visibility to respond. At what cost do we only ever encounter people “like ourselves”? Can we, like Anna Deavere Smith, learn to embody a wide range of viewpoints and perspectives, to not only sympathize but to take action?

As Smith deftly flips among identities, transforming her voice and physicality along with a simple shift in lights and an added prop or two, one is undeniably impressed by her performative virtuosity. But I left The Broad Stage that evening even more impressed by Smith’s collaborative generosity. She and John Fleck (Mad Women) have renewed my faith that a solo show can be much more than a self-absorbed endeavor. With dynamic direction by Leonard Foglia, Smith engages her audience intellectually and emotionally, from sharing a beer with someone sitting in the front row to projecting a close-up of herself on a video screen. Riccardo Hernandez’ clean set design incorporates hanging mirrors, reflecting Smith’s various embodiments from every angle — as well as reflecting the audience back to themselves. Over the course of the evening, the set gradually accumulates props from every character – a coat here, a mug there, a blanket and boxing gloves and a bowl of fruit. And in her most generous gesture of the evening, Smith lets the props — her physically-absent collaborators — take the first bow.

Very few things can be called universal in the human experience — but just as death is one certainty, so is life. Let Me Down Easy connects fragmentary, disparate human experiences into a beautiful patchwork of common humanity. Smith has pointed out some of the ripped seams. Now who is going to fix them?

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26 07 2011
LET ME DOWN EASY (BROAD STAGE): 95% – SWEET : Bitter Lemons

[…] SWEET Very few things can be called universal in the human experience — but just as death is one certainty, so is life. Let Me Down Easy connects fragmentary, disparate human experiences into a beautiful patchwork of common humanity. Smith has pointed out some of the ripped seams. Now who is going to fix them? Sarah Taylor Ellis – Compositions on Theatre […]

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