Anna Deavere Smith "Lets Us Down Easy" in the Health Care Debate

BlogHer Original Post

"When I hear the official language [of the health care debate] it makes me suppose that this is a time when we need a lot more art that's not going to have answers that are in black and white. "

Anna Deavere Smith to Bill Moyers, November 13, 2009

Back in 2000, Danny Schecter published notes from a presentation by Jake Lynch and Anna McGoldrick about peace journalism - a mode of practice that encourages us to think about current events and issues with an eye toward what can unite, instead of what divides. There's one point in his notes that speaks so wisely to the fractious debate over health care reform taking place across the nation:

AVOID accepting stark distinctions between "self" and "other." These can be used to build the sense that another party is a "threat" or "beyond the pale" of civilized behavior — both key justifications for violence. INSTEAD, seek the "other" in the "self" and vice versa. If a party is presenting itself as "the goodies," ask questions about how different its behavior really is to that it ascribes to "the baddies" — isn't it ashamed of itself?

Oprah Winfrey Host The Legends Ball

No one does a better job of showing us the "self" in our various "others" than Anna Deavere Smith, the astonishing writer and actress whose decades-long quest to understand and portray the American character has resulted in some of the most remarkable theater, and yes, journalism of the last 20 years. Smith's method qualifies as literary journalism not only because her monologues are excerpts of verbatim transcripts of interviews with her subjects, but also because the narrative that she constructs and performs from those vignettes is as subtle and densely layered in ways that Tom Wolfe never imagined. As Blogher CE Gena Haskett put it back in 2007, Smith " carries on the traditions of our ancestors in telling the tales of others as we participate in the resonance of being human."

Smith's latest one-woman show, "Let Me Down Easy," , offers us the opportunity to resonate with the experiences of 20 humans navigating the shoals of life, death and the health care system. Critics, audience members and bloggers talk about the off-Broadway in such superlative terms that it's not surprising that its run has been extended weeks beyond its original closing date, to December 6. What makes the piece so interesting to me right now, though, is the hope that this kind of art really can help promote genuine civic dialog.

First, here's a bit of Smith talking about her work and this new production:

As Smith has explained in multiple interviews about the show, the project began with an invitation from the Yale Medical School about a decade to create a piece based on interviews of doctors and patients for their "Grand Rounds." Smith told Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzales of Democracy Now!

I went to Yale at a time well before what we now think of as the healthcare debate, but the doctor who invited me to come, Dr. Ralph Horowitz, who’s now at Stanford as head of medicine there, saw, you know, the problem then, as I’m sure many doctors did, but also was looking at a critical moment in medicine, where the twentieth century had delivered a lot of science, but the whole idea of healing had kind of gone away, under the weight of that science, and so leaving me, as I left Yale, with a question about where is care in our society? We’re smarter, but are we more caring? Do we know how to heal? And that’s what really catapulted me into this investigation of doing over 300 interviews on three continents.

During the Democracy Now! interview, Goodman describes the play as, "incredibly moving." It also highlights ways in which our access to health care really isn't equal. For example, here is part of the transcript of her monologue as Ruth Katz, a dean at Yale Medical School.

ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: [as Ruth Katz] And an oncology fellow, who’s—which is not one of our full-time faculty, but someone who’s in training here, specializing in oncology, came into my room. “I want to apologize, but we can’t find your records. Could you tell me what kind of cancer you have?” I said, “This is appalling.” He said, “No, hey, it’s not just you. It happens here quite a bit.” I said, “I am appalled for every patient who comes on this unit.” And I had to go through, from like the beginning, my whole story.

Well, eventually, I’ll tell you, I’ll tell you as an aside, eventually I knew—I could tell by his question—that he was going to get to the question of, do you work? And I’ve never advertised my position around here. I just wanted to be treated like everybody else. And so, you know, he says, “Do you work?” you know, about midway through his questions. And I said, “I do.” And he said, “Are you working full time?” And I said, “I am.” And he said, “Where are you working?” I said, “I’m associate dean at the medical school.” Now he looks up. “At this medical school?” I said, “At the Yale School of Medicine.” He found my files within a half an hour.

Writing for Pyschology Today, Danielle Ofri, MD, PhD, said she started out identifying with Smith's portrayal of a young physician marooned at Charity Hospital during Hurricane Katrina, and then:

"[I]n Deveare Smith's rendering of Dr. Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, we see the rawest ulceration of our society, worse than anything I'd ever experienced or ever imagined."

Linda at the Critic-O-Meter noted that the critical acclaim isn't universal. While Newsday's Linda Winer lauded Smith's "curiosity about - and empathy for - multiple points of view," Time Out New York's Helen Shaw laments that "the tidy snippets of experience, the deliberate emotional tugs and the high celeb quotient feel a little easy." And the Wall Street Journali's Terry Teachout doesn't even give the piece that much credit.

But I relate most to what Amy Goodman said to Smith at the end of the DN interview, perhaps because like Goodman, my mother died recently:

"[T]his play definitely, I think, spoke to... the two issues patients need the most: one, time with their doctor, which they so rarely get; and pain management, how to deal with pain, and that takes listening to a patient, caring about a patient, and spending time with that patient. I think you conveyed that in this play. I want to thank you.

If we can only remind ourselves of such simple, universal needs as the political debate over health care moves forward, maybe we can come closer to really does improve access and affordability. At least one can hope.


  1. Smith uses an interview with theologian James Cone to explain the show's title, "Let Me Down Easy." In the play, Cone is quoted as saying that the title "are the words of a broken heart" -- broken by the loss of love, but also perhaps by a broken social contract, or even by death. In that vein, it seems appropriate to include the Isley Brothers' 1975 ballad of the same name in this post:
  2. Melissa Silverstein is glad that Smith's show is one of two currently New York theater offerings currently being headlined by African American women.
  3. Jadedj at Banquet of Consequences commends this NPR interview with Smith about the show, suggesting:

    A note, the interview is 28 minutes long, if you don't have that kind of time, forward to about the 18 minute mark, or maybe a little before, for the last 10 minutes.


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