Healthcare and Humanity

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Longtime Angelenos will remember Anna Deavere Smith's brilliant and haunting play at the Taper called Twilight: Los Angeles about the aftermath of the Rodney King trial. She's back, now at the Broad Stage, with Let Me Down Easy. Like in her other solo shows, Smith channels the voices of real people to create a piece of theater that's a cross between a journalist's gift for finding the heart of an interview and an actor's passion for revealing the heart. This time, her show is about an idea rather than an event. Let Me Down Easy centers on healthcare in America, but it's really about mortality and the potential of the human body and spirit.

To understand what Anna Deavere Smith is up to it helps to understand how she constructs her plays and performances. Her process is both fascinating and byzantine. The building blocks are actually a decade long process of interviews - 320 for the current piece. She has these interviews transcribed verbatim - not simply the words a journalist would capture but also the stutters, the 'um's', the sounds of thinking, of constructing. She edits these transcripts down to a theatrical essence that becomes the script. Then the original audio is re-edited to match her script. From these audio tapes, of not only the subject's words but also their actual voices, Ms. Smith crafts her remarkable portraits. Listen to this line in her monologue from Lance Armstrong: “And then, uh, then I think that, ultimately, the, the, the overarching thing was just this fear of failure that I learned.”

You hear not just a person's words but also the idiosyncrasies of their thoughts and emotions. The text is simultaneously poetic, polemic, engaging and beautifully imperfect.

In Let Me Down Easy, Anna Deavere Smith performs twenty of these portraits ranging from a bull rider to a cancer patient to a Buddhist monk.

If you've never seen Ms. Smith perform, she literally embodies her characters with not only an ear for capturing their unique speech but also a knack for crystallizing a person's movement and rhythms into an immediately recognizable shorthand. When she sits down as former Texas Govenor Ann Richards, you immediately recognize not only the accent and body language but the charisma. More mysteriously, when she speaks as the late film critic Joel Siegel, you'd swear her face changed.

While the recognition of celebrity is cheaply entertaining, the soul of the piece lies in Ms. Smith's deeper concerns. In the most devastatingly moving monologue, she reveals Krista Kurtz-Burke, a physician at Charity Hospital in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. While describing the struggle to provide medical care to the poorest of the city while the water and temperature were rising and the supplies were dwindling, Smith damns the worst of our bureaucracy while revealing our potential for humanity. The emotions transcend Katrina and the health care debate and speaks to what it means to be human, what it means to have a body, what it means to deal with mortality.

What could be more essentially theatrical?

Let Me Down Easy plays through this Sunday at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica.

For info on the show text the word “curtain” to 69866.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Banner image by Amy Graves

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