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Theater for What Ails You?

March 24, 2011 By:
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Anna Deavere Smith

Wishing "L'chaim" to Anna Deavere Smith is not so much a toast to good health as test of talent.

Indeed, raising a glass in hope helps raise the bar of how high she is willing to go to expose the health-care experience that is in extremis in this country.

If all the world's a stage, all the health-care industry should run for cover as the writer's "Let Me Down Easy" provides no easy out for what ails the nation.

The actress/playwright/journalist/ historian's natural-born histrionics find a suitable stage for her one-woman shows driven by a million questions. Indeed, the Beaver (now Arcadia University) College graduate has made the grade since leaving Glenside on her way to world stages, where her revolutionary rages about the human condition have won awards, accolades and a MacArthur Foundation Grant, granting her the status of genius sui generis.

All that talent takes up the stage of the Philadelphia Theatre Company's Suzanne Roberts Theatre in "Let Me Down Easy," now through April 10.

Not that the actress/writer will let up with her efforts even then; her show has been refined since first starting out earlier this millennium and promises to leave its lingering impact even longer.

Refined is the best way to describe Deavere Smith even as she tackled rough-around-the edges characters in such past landmark literary theatrical efforts describing the Crown Heights, N.Y., fatal conflict of Chasids and blacks, and the vicious circus-like schism that cleaved a city in half following the Rodney King trial.

How could so genteel a woman so generously spit out the venom and vitriol needed onstage, veering from one character's guise to another so guilelessly and seamlessly?

It's a career tailor-made for an actress who acts upon her instinctive talents for mind-melding, helping to explain her distillation of some 300 detailed interviews into an ensemble of 20 characters she parlays from street to stage for her play at PTC.

Physician, heal thy nation?

It is no surprise that Deavere Smith once wanted to be a psychiatrist, but no Prozac could proscribe the scribe's need for serenity now to do so. She eschewed the path to M.D. because she couldn't empty herself of the empathy she had for others: "I feel your pain" was more than a presidential punchline; it was her modus operandi.

"My mother thought I was too sensitive," and would take patients' problems upon herself, reveals the writer.

Instead, the Baltimore-born, 60-year-old daughter of a school principal and a coffee vendor found grounds to explore in theater, where her advanced academic study and productive efforts have advanced the art and the artist.

She learned early on how best to step into other's shoes without cracking their toes. Indeed, Deavere Smith's world quickly went from black to white in one giant step, when she went from an all-black school to a predominantly Jewish one.

High school daze? Clearly not: That transition helped find a natural transference when the writer reflected on the Crown Heights affair of 1991 and saw "Fires in the Mirror" a year later.

The Past Infuses the Present

"I was very influenced by the friends I made at high school," she said of her early Jewish gentrification.

"When I sat down in the homes of Lubavitchers in Crown Heights," garnering insight and invaluable language that would line her 1992 script, "it evoked experiences at Western High, when I would go to the homes of my Jewish friends and would see their grandmothers there, their bubbies, who were not assimilated."

It evoked warm memories and radiated a trust that triumphed with those she interviewed years later, easing Deavere Smith into the closed-off Crown Heights conclave which trusts few outsiders.

Men in black opening up to a black woman? "People would ask, 'How'd you get the Lubavitchers to talk to you?' "

But piercing this sense of otherworldliness that pervades the Crown Heights sect was a singular and signal reason Deavere Smith felt she had to write what she did. The fires in the mirror burn and smolder on both sides, she says.

They found their match in the woman who would try to defuse them through theatrics.

Strangers no more, the families she sat with and assayed on stage "felt profoundly familiar" from my past.

We are family -- we are all family: Indeed, the Rodney King three-ring circus -- brought on when cops caught on tape beating King got off guilt-free-- infused the fusillade that was "Twilight: Los Angeles," a gleaming lingering look at the black-white riots that lit up Los Angeles in 1992.

On Familiar Ground

Conversely, coming up with "Let Me Down Easy" -- in which sundry experts, celebrities and everyday people talk of health, healing and the hell of present-day health care -- meant a different battlefield, in which Deavere's war of words is waged on fear, frustration and pro-forma procrastination.

(She is on familiar ground; as actress she stars as an officious hospital administrator in Showtime's hit series of "Nurse Jackie.")

"Easy" does it: Theater as cure-all for the real world? Not going to happen, Deavere Smith concedes.

But "Let Me Down" can build up resistance to the status quo stat in those normally prone to pessimism.

Ruth Katz of Atlantic City, N.J., currently chief public health counsel/Democratic staff for the Committee on Energy and Commerce of the U.S. House of Representatives, has every right to be wary of the wealth of medical misinformation out there as her story/character is taken on by Deavere Smith in "Let Me Down Easy."

As a one-time patient at New Haven Hospital, Katz had a close encounter with an oncology fellow she found sorely lacking in bedside manner.

He had lost her case files, he explained, adding carelessness to carcinogenics: "It's not just you. That happens here quite a bit!"

A bit later, trying to assemble her history, if not assuage her hurt and anger, he asked Katz if she works.

Yes, she replied.

" 'You working full-time?'

"I said, 'I am.'

"He said,'Where are you working?'

"I said, 'I'm associate dean at the medical school.' "

" 'At this medical school?'

Yes, at that medical school.

Case closed!

Said Katz: "He found my files within half an hour."

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