Actress-playwright Anna Deavere Smith

Pulitzer Prize nominee describes the extensive research she conducted for her latest play, Let Me Down Easy, which is about healthcare and included interviews with more than 300 people.

An acclaimed actress, playwright and professor, Anna Deavere Smith was hailed by Newsweek as "the most exciting individual in American theater." As an actress, she's been featured in numerous films and TV series, including Showtime's dark comedy Nurse Jackie. As a playwright, she explores issues of community, character and diversity in America in one-woman shows, including her latest, Let Me Down Easy. She's won two Obies, two Tony nods and a MacArthur "genius" grant and is founder-director of the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue and an NYU professor.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Anna Deavere Smith to this program. In addition to her role on the acclaimed Showtime series “Nurse Jackie,” she is on tour this summer with a terrific one-woman show about healthcare.

It’s called “Let Me Down Easy.” The play runs at the Broad Stage here in L.A. from July 20th through the 31st. She is in Berkeley right now. We’ll talk about that in just a moment. First, though, here now a scene from “Let Me Down Easy.”


Tavis: So I saw this, as you know, in New York City, and loved it. I’m so honored to have you here. I was able to catch you, since you’re up in Berkeley at the moment, got you on a plane, flew you down here.

Anna Deavere Smith: Well, I’m honored.

Tavis: No, I’m honored to have you here. I so enjoyed the piece, and you were telling me before we came on the camera that you think it’s even better now than it was when I saw it in New York?

Smith: Well, don’t be, like, making me look like a braggart. That was between you and me before we went on the air.

Tavis: (Laughs) But you think it’s better. I’m curious, though, why do you think – I thought it was amazing. How can it be better?

Smith: Well, because I’ve been performing it since you saw it in the fall of 2009, so it should be better. (Laughs) I have a chance to really get deeper and deeper in the characters, I guess, but yeah.

Tavis: Speaking of characters, this thing has 20 different characters.

Smith: Mm-hmm.

Tavis: Just because I’m curious, how do you keep 20 different characters separate? How do you not crisscross 20 different characters?

Smith: Oh that – why are you putting that idea in my head? Now this is a mess. I have to go back on stage tomorrow night. (Laughter)

Tavis: Twenty different characters.

Smith: Don’t give me that idea.

Tavis: I’m sorry, I’m sorry.

Smith: But don’t you remember how I’d always – on talk shows, it always asks like Aretha Franklin or people like that, singers, “Oh, my goodness, when you’re singing such-and-such a song, who are you thinking about?” and they’d say, “I’m trying to hit the notes.” So that’s kind of the situation for me, too. It’s technical. Technical stuff.

Tavis: Part of what makes this so fascinating for me is the research you actually did. All your pieces are very well researched by yourself. Tell me about the research you did to put together this particular piece.

Smith: So for this play I interviewed 320 people on three continents, and then it’s kind of like what you do. It’s just that you don’t act out the people who come and sit here. I’d love to see you do that, though.

Tavis: Mm, no, you wouldn’t. (Laughter) I know my gift, and that’s why I’m in this chair right here, and not that chair. So you interviewed 320 people. What were you getting from these people?

Smith: You know what I was getting? And you know what, I’ll tell you something – this is a confession. I often think about you now ever since that wonderful event we had with a bunch of people in New York. Remember we talked together?

Tavis: Sure.

Smith: You have an expression that says, “Tell me something.” It almost reminds me of it should be, “Tell me something good.” So what I am is a student of expression. I just am looking for people to say something in a fantastic way, and everybody does in the course of an hour.

What I think I have here with the 20 people I do is just 20 great, expressive people, and they really teach me something when I get in there and learn what they do.

Tavis: As folks saw from the clip a moment ago and the one they’re playing now over my voice, you don’t just – you’re not just recounting your conversations with them, you’re into character. So whether it’s a cowboy, whether it’s Cornel West, whether it’s Lance Armstrong, these 20 characters, some of them are people that we actually know. They’re well-known people.

What’s the process for actually getting into their character? When you talk to them, obviously you’re studying them not just for voice. You’re getting from them not just content but other stuff as well.

Smith: Right. So my acting technique comes from a Black man who only had an eighth grade education – my grandfather, Deavere Smith Sr. He said to me, “If you say a word often enough, it becomes you.”

So my project has really been it’s all a part of a big project called “On the Road, A Search for American Character” that I started a long, long time ago. This play, “Let Me Down Easy,” is about the 18th or something in that series.

I have been trying to absorb America by going around, putting down my tape recorder and talking to people, and then taking what they said and saying it over and over and over again. The way you think about walking in somebody’s shoes, I’m walking in somebody’s words. The overall goal is to see how much I can learn about the country I live in. In this play I did go also to Africa and to Germany.

Tavis: What do you learn, just generally, from talking to American people, the American people, about the healthcare crisis? What do you learn?

Smith: Whoa, that’s a really big question. I would say that what I’ve learned – and again, it’s many, many interviews – is a lot about the disparity of who gets what, and that the gap between rich and poor is bigger than ever, and if you have a lot of resources, fantastic things can happen to you, and if you don’t, you’re probably not going to get that chance. I would say that.

But what I’ve learned about America, I would say, if we would think, it would be impossible to think of it as a person, but what I see recurring and recurring and recurring is that old stuff, hope. I feel that that is something that is really a part of the American personality, this belief that things will be better and that we can make it better.

Tavis: Hope even about an issue as contentious as healthcare? I ask that because the debate was so ugly when it was in full effect. Now that we’re past it and now that we have a divided Congress, we don’t know how much they’re going to try to roll back what has happened. Let me just ask you what you make of the debate as we sit here today.

Smith: I don’t think that the debate is helpful. Debates should be helpful, but this one isn’t because as it was, and I think even the Democrats admit that when it first got rolled out it wasn’t explained very well. I think that the debate’s really just causing more confusion.

So now I will make my plug for art, which is, I think, we have an opportunity, artists do, you do, anybody who has any bit of public space, we have an opportunity to try to present points of view to the people and ask the people to use that chance to talk about it among themselves. It’s very important that we have a real national conversation about this.

Tavis: When I came to see the play in New York, as I referenced earlier, I happened to be with Dr. West that day. Cornel West and I were together and we, of course, came backstage to say hello to you, then went to grab something to eat, and for the next three or four hours we were in a deep discourse, a deep dialogue, about the play and about the healthcare debate in this country, because it was, for us, at least, impossible to see the play, to appreciate the art that you put on stage, and disconnect that from what’s happening in the real world.

I say all that to ask I don’t know how much interaction you’re having with the people who get a chance to see the play, but what are you seeing, what are you hearing from people when they see the play relative to what’s happening in the real world of healthcare?

Smith: All different kinds of things. For example, if I perform parts of this play or the whole play, as I have, to doctors, many doctors will say, “Thank you so much for this, because it reminds me of why I got into medicine in the first place.” Doctors have a lot of things pulling them in many directions. They have science, they have the marketplace, they have all this stuff. So how do they get to be the healers that they really want to be?

I think that this play is also about the joy of life. I had a woman who said to me, “Thank you so much for this play. It really helped my friend.” I said, “Is your friend – what’s the matter?” He said, “Well, he’s depressed,” and that person found the play very uplifting and joyous, right?

So I think that it speaks both about us physically and what’s going to happen, and it also speaks about what’s going to happen to us as a caring nation, who we’re going to be able to take care of, and it also speaks about us spiritually, and that is about our well-being in another kind of way, the part that’s not physical.

Tavis: When you said that your travels around the country have resulted in you feeling this sense of hope that the American people still have, I’m trying to juxtapose that against what I sense. Maybe we’re traveling two different places or seeing two different things, but I’m not feeling the hope that I used to feel in this country.

My sense is, and there are surveys that bear this out, that there are so many Americans now who think, Anna, that our best days as a nation are really behind us. So I’m trying to get a sense of whether or not the hope that you’ve been feeling doing these plays, is that shifting a little bit?

Smith: Well, okay, so let’s – well, no, let’s just think again about what is hope, right?

Tavis: Okay, all right.

Smith: So you’re very friendly with Cornel West, and he talks about it as – he differentiates between hope and optimism, right?

Tavis: It’s two different things.

Smith: Optimism’s, “Oh, looks pretty good, things are going to be better.” Hope says, “It doesn’t look good at all. The evidence is bad. I’m going to go beyond the evidence to create new possibilities based on visions that become contagious that allow people to engage in heroic actions.” Right?

Tavis: That’s true.

Smith: To engage in heroic action. So I think about my cowboy – I call him my cowboy; he’s a rodeo cowboy, a bull-rider living his own life without me, but one of the characters that I perform. He talks about determination. I think that notion, he says, “We shouldn’t be able to stay on top of a bull that’s going to buck you off, because we weigh 150 pounds. They weigh over 2,000 pounds. I think what keeps you on top of that bull is determination, something inside of you.”

So I think you’re right in terms of what the evidence is, and people see it, see it clearly. But I still see that spirit or that wish, even in the face of disappointment. Probably one of the characters that audiences talk about the most to me is a white privileged woman who was a doctor in a hospital in New Orleans, a hospital for poor people, Charity Hospital, and people just can’t believe – although we all saw it play out on the news – how poorly these poor people were treated.

The fact to me that middle class audiences who come to the theater who have pretty good lives are attracted to her warning of where we could be headed, which is bad news, the fact that they care about it is good news to me. I think we need leadership that helps us remember that part of what we are about is caring about more than the person right next to us, but the folks across the way.

Tavis: Let me ask personally what you get out of this. What I mean by that is you have distinguished yourself with these one-woman plays that you’ve done any number of times on different subject matter, so I assume that it must do something for you.

But there’s a lot of research, there’s a lot of work developing these characters. When you’re not doing the one-woman thing you’re – in one of my favorite movies, “The American President,” or other movies that you do, we see you in “Nurse Jackie,” but there’s something about this that keeps bringing you back to the stage with these one-woman shows. What do you get out of this?

Smith: That’s a fantastic question. I really thank you for that. I really thank you for that, because I appreciate that you see the work that goes into it.

Well, that reminds me of another character. (Laughter)

Tavis: If I have enough time, we’re going to get through all 20 of these characters, I think. We’re into character four now. Yes.

Smith: Right, okay, so Sally Jenkins, who’s a brilliant sports writer, she wrote Lance Armstrong’s books with him, she wrote Pat Summit’s books with her. When she talks about athletes she says that what they really love is process. That it’s really about the process. It’s not just about winning.

For me, first of all, I love people, I love ideas. I love how people talk. I’ve loved that since I was a little girl. I love studying how people are. Not just what they’re saying, but how they are, what they’re doing. I love these portraits that I make of people. That’s just what I love to do when I wake up in the morning. I love to think about it. I don’t think I’ll ever be tired of doing it.

So that’s what keeps me doing it, is something that I truly, truly love, and I just love meeting people who are different than me, who have different ideas than I have. I feel like my work has been my path to freedom from having grown up in a segregated environment.

I guess fame and fortune could be what that path is for some people. For me, that path is about learning about the very person I shouldn’t care about.

Tavis: You mentioned segregation; it brings to mind immediately Black and white. That was the old construct; we now live, as you well know, in the most multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic America ever, and as you travel that multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic America do you think we’re going to make it?

Is the jury still out, or are you certain that we’re going to make it as a nation, given the way that these tensions have caused for divides on a variety of issues – politically, socially, economically and culturally.

Smith: Well, I’m a hopeaholic. I think I’ve made that clear. Let’s go further than I’m a hopeaholic, I’m probably a fool. But that’s probably also bragging, because being a fool is the highest praise you could claim as an actor. You’re supposed to sort of see the world upside-down and ask questions and stuff like that.

I’m concerned about our divisions. I’m concerned about how big the gap is, not just between who has and who doesn’t have but who knows and who doesn’t know.

As you know, I teach. I’ve been teaching a long time. I teach now at New York University. That really saddens me and upsets me, because it’s not just have you learned enough to have a trade, but I see how many people don’t get, as you have and as your enterprise, we can see it evident every night with you, right, is just the sheer joy of learning.

To be cut off from that is really not good, and in some ways I see that happening everywhere, even with people who have access to education. So I have real questions right now about our values and how we can turn some of that around.

Tavis: Questions are good, though.

Smith: Questions are good.

Tavis: Questions are good. I got a lot more questions, but no more time. So you’ll come back again and we can continue this Q&A.

Smith: I hope so. I hope so.

Tavis: Right quick, you’re in Berkeley now at –

Smith: Berkeley. Berkeley Repertory Theater.

Tavis: Right, and then coming to the Broad Stage in July.

Smith: Yeah.

Tavis: Here in L.A., where I will see you again.

Smith: I hope so.

Tavis: And I’ll decide if it really is better or not.

Smith: Okay. (Laughter)

Tavis: Okay. Good to see you.

Smith: Good to see you.

Tavis: Anna Deavere Smith. “Let Me Down Easy” is the play.

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Last modified: July 25, 2011 at 12:50 pm