One-Woman Show Explores Human Side of Health Care Debate

February 7, 2011 at 6:29 PM EDT
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Judy Woodruff speaks with actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith about her one-woman play, "Let Me Down Easy," which tackles contemporary health care issues through the eyes of more than a dozen different characters, based on hundreds of interviews she conducted.

JEFFREY BROWN: Next: Even as the health-care reform debate continues here in Washington and in the courts, a new play brings the subject to another stage, literally, as it tours the country.

Judy Woodruff has the story.

ANNA DEAVERE SMITH, actress and playwright: It’s not like there’s some glorified God (INAUDIBLE). Those gods are gone, thank heaven, thank heaven.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In the world of theater, even in the world of one-person shows, perhaps no other actor has portrayed as many real people on stage as Anna Deavere Smith, whether she’s playing a bull rider from Idaho toughing out painful surgery…

ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: I had to be at a rodeo that night, so I didn’t really want them to put me under anesthesia, or however you say that word. I told them to do without it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … the brother of a man murdered in a New York race riot…

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ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: My brother was stabbed in the streets of Crown Heights for no other reason than that he was a Jew.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … or seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong talking about his competitive drive.

ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: One guy was five times second in the Tour de France. Sucks to be him.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Smith is best known as a playwright and artist who uses people’s words, dialects and physical gestures to illuminate the large political and social issues of our time, like race and economic disparity.

In doing so, her plays are known for incorporating a wide variety of viewpoints, some in direct conflict with each other, always portrayed with great empathy.

ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: Now, when (INAUDIBLE) said to the mayor, we’re all one people, I think what he meant was the respect that we give each other under the banner of being the children of God.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Her latest show, “Let Me Down Easy,” now playing at the reopened Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., takes that approach in tackling one of the most charged issues in America today: health care.

She first began thinking about it more than a decade ago, when the Yale School of Medicine asked her to speak with doctors and patients about their personal experiences with care, and then present those perspectives back to physicians in a performance during what’s known as Medical Grand Rounds.

ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: It seemed like the kind of thing that, you know, a scientist from Germany would come and talk. And here I am, a clown basically, performing other people, pretending to be other people. Why would they want a performance there?

I think the other thing that was making me a little bit nervous was actually, did I want to deal with sickness? Did I want to be close to sickness and, you know, the other bad word, mortality? I wasn’t sure about that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But she was intrigued by the subject and realized there was an important role for art in describing the problems of modern medicine.

ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: Now I understand that what we can give from the arts is our ability to tell the human story. And one of the subjects right now, I think, in a field like medicine is do doctors have time to listen to you?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And she listened to how it affects patients as well, like the case of one patient at Yale-New Haven Hospital who was told by doctors that her file was misplaced.

ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: He said, are you working full time? I said, I am. He said, where are you working? I said, I’m associate dean at the medical school.


ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: Now he looks up.


ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: Now he looks up. He said, at this medical school?


ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: I said, at the Yale School of Medicine.


ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: He found my files within a half-an-hour.


JUDY WOODRUFF: The show had a long evolution. While working on other projects, Smith eventually interviewed more than 300 people. Several productions were mounted. By the time it landed in New York at Second Stage Theatre last year, it had a new relevance because of the big debate over health-care reform.

ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: Interestingly enough, in 2000 is when I first did it. It wasn’t really — we weren’t really talking about it yet. So, as I went to New York, and it was really a part of the national conversation, I decided to focus it down, so that it could be the human side of the health-care debate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The leaner piece now examines health care in America through the eyes of 20 different people, focusing on questions of access, disparities, illness and mortality.

So, the short-hand description of what this is about is, it’s about health care. But it’s really about much more than that, isn’t it?

ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: Well, I say that it is about the vulnerability of the human body, the resilience of the spirit, the price of care.

But, last night, an Episcopal minister came to see the show. And he said that the show is about the good news. And the good news is that regardless of how heavy your struggle is grace and kindness will win.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Grace is certainly in plentiful supply in the play, but the show also chronicles the very real difficulties Americans encounter, such as what a doctor at Charity Hospital in New Orleans recalls telling her patients about evacuations in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: And he said, well, do you think they’re eventually going to come and get us? And I said, I don’t know. I said, I just don’t really know.

And that made me feel so crappy and, like, ashamed a little bit, like ashamed not to be able to do for people what I wanted to do, which was to get them the hell out of here and to a safe place. I mean, my patients at Charity, they’re not dumb. The nurses at Charity, they’re not dumb. They knew we were going to be the last ones out. They knew that the patients in the private hospitals had private helicopters. It wasn’t — you know, it wasn’t a shock to anybody.

As people come to see “Let Me Down Easy,” they are bringing a whole host of experiences that they have had in the health-care system, that the people that they love have had in the health-care system. If I’m working well, a kind of chemistry between what they’re bringing and what I’m trying to give, and maybe there’s a different mix by the time they leave, or they’re reminded of something that is very precious to them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Smith has had her share of film and television work, including roles as the president’s national security adviser on “The West Wing,” or, more recently, as a hospital administrator on “Nurse Jackie” on Showtime.

But Smith’s most personal work is in the theater. And that’s reflected in this show. A supporter of the health-care reform law, she says the national debate influenced her play. Now she’s hoping the show can have a role in sparking conversation about the choices Americans face.

ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: Who is going to take care of everybody? How is that going to happen? And I think that’s one reason that the debate is so volatile, because I think the people who are really in the know understand how big that problem is, and that we are not going to be able to have everything. I’m sure that even the people who want to repeal the act want a caring nation. And the question is how will that happen?

JUDY WOODRUFF: In all of her pieces, Smith captures people’s mannerisms, their ticks, their own words to reveal character, such as the bull rider in “Let Me Down Easy.”

ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: And he says — and I think this is something that speaks for so many Americans, regardless of where they sit — he’s talking about, you know, when you’re riding a bull.

If you think about it, we shouldn’t be able to stay on the back of a bull that is trying to buck you off, because we weigh like 150 pounds. They weigh like over 2,000 pounds, that — so you just feel like a king at that moment, you know? And you know you can’t stay on top of every bull. But I think it’s determination. Yes, I think it comes from inside you, what keeps you on that bull.

And I think that idea that, if you think about it, we shouldn’t be able to stay on the back of a bull. But what keeps you on the back of that bull is something from inside you: determination. I think one of the things I’ve learned about American character in these years that I have been doing my project is that we do all believe that we can stay on top of that bull.

JUDY WOODRUFF: “Let Me Down Easy” plays in Washington through mid-February. Its national tour will continue to four more cities: Philadelphia; Columbus, Ohio; San Francisco; and San Diego.


GWEN IFILL: And PBS’ “Great Performances” is taping “Let Me Down Easy”‘s Washington run and plans to air it next season.