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Anna Deavere Smith
Anna Deveare Smith
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November 13, 2009

Playwright and actress Anna Deavere Smith has won two Obie Awards, been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and two Tonys and is a recipient of the prized MacArthur fellowship. She won those accolades taking on some of the toughest subjects in modern life. Her one-woman performance FIRES IN THE MIRROR, her gutsy take on violence between Jews and Blacks in Brooklyn, brought her to national prominence in 1992. Now she's back on stage taking on a tall order: As a recent NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE profile stated her challenge: Can Anna Deavere Smith's one-woman play about health care bring other voices to the debate?


Image from Let Me Down EasyIn the 90 minutes of LET ME DOWN EASY, Anna Deavere Smith becomes 20 people on stage, from a rodeo bullrider to a Buddhist monk, cyclist Lance Armstrong and the late governor of Texas, Ann Richards, each talking about life, illnesses, mortality and the human body. The project began when a doctor asked Smith to lend her talents as an interpreter of real voices and characters to the study of modern health care.

I was invited to come to the Yale School of Medicine by a very imaginative doctor named Ralph Horowitz, who was then the head of internal medicine there. And he asked me to come there and interview doctors and patients. And then to present characters at medical grand rounds, which is a kind of fuddy duddyish assemblage of doctors. I would imagine often listening to other scientists and doctors. I was pretty intimidated.

But I went and I was so drawn in to the stories of the patients and so excited that in those cases of those interviews I really only had to ask one question. And I pretty much started every interview with just turning on my tape recorder and saying, "What happened to you?" And then people were singing songs, sharing their prayers. Literally one lady just burst into prayer. One man 's granddaughter came in and read to me from her journal when her grandfather was having a heart transplant. So it just really grabbed me.
LET ME DOWN EASY is now playing in New York's Second Stage Theater.

Photo by Robin Holland Anna Deavere Smith's career covers mainstream culture as well as academia. Her work in the theater explores American character and our multifaceted national identity. She has won numerous awards, among them two Obies, two Tony nominations and a MacArthur fellowship. She was runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize for her play FIRES IN THE MIRROR.

She is said to have created a new form of theater. Her work combines the journalistic technique of interviewing her subjects with the art of interpreting their words through performance. THE NEW YORK TIMES called her "the ultimate impressionist, she does people's souls." Television shows include PRESIDIO MED, THE WEST WING, THE PRACTICE, and the new Showtime series NURSE JACKIE. Films include THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT, DAVE, THE HUMAN STAIN, and RACHEL GETTING MARRIED.

She is the author of TWILIGHT: LOS ANGELES, 1992; FIRES IN THE MIRROR; and HOUSE ARREST. Her newest play is LET ME DOWN EASY. Her books include TALK TO ME and LETTERS TO A YOUNG ARTIST.

She has been awarded many honorary degrees, including those from The Juilliard School, Wesleyan University, Haverford College, Cooper Union, and Northwestern University. A professor at New York University, she is also founding director of the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue, a center for artistic excellence addressing social change. She serves on the boards of the Museum of Modern Art and the Aspen Institute.

Guest photo by Robin Holland.
On-stage photos by Joan Marcus.
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References and Reading:
21st Century Theater: LET ME DOWN EASY
The Web site for Anna Deavere Smith's play features a number of clips from the play and interviews with the author as well as online forum for conversation about the issues raised in the play.

The TED Conference: Anna Deavere Smith's American character
Writer and actor Anna Deavere Smith gives life to author Studs Terkel, convict Paulette Jenkins, a Korean shopkeeper and a bull rider, excerpts from her solo show ON THE ROAD: A SEARCH FOR AMERICAN CHARACTER.

"Obama's Audience Speaks First"
By Anna Deavere Smith, THE NEW YORK TIMES, September 8, 2009.

Center for American Progress
Anna Deavere Smith is an artist in residence at the Center.

"Times Topics: Anna Deavere Smith"
Read a collection articles about the playwright and actress from THE NEW YORK TIMES.
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