PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Anna Deavere Smith It's been a while since the theatre's heard from noted performance artist Anna Deavere Smith.
Anna Deavere Smith
Anna Deavere Smith

In the '90s, she captivated audiences with her distinct brand of Documentary Theatre — represented by the critical hits Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles 1992 — in which she conducted extensive interviews with people directly involved in, or indirectly interested in, tumultuous social events, and then created a sort of living human collage by impersonating them onstage. Fires looked at the events and participants in the 1991 Crown Heights riots, while Twilight examined the 1992 social upheaval in Los Angeles following the Rodney King verdict. Her most recent work, House Arrest, about the life of the occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, seen at the Public Theater in 2000, was arguably more ambitious, but less successful. Seven years later, she has returned with Let Me Down Easy, which is said to explore "the resiliency and vulnerability of the human body." It begins previews at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, CT, on Jan. 9. Smith spoke to about the many years and many miles in between her last work and this. Most of your past works have sprung from a specific event, such as the Crown Heights and L.A. riots. But this is a more broad and intangible topic. Why did you choose it?
ADS: First of all, it's great that I'm here in New Haven, because the project started in New Haven in the late '90s when the head of medicine at the Yale School of Medicine wrote me to see if I would like to come here as a visiting professor and interview doctors and patients and make a presentation. I thought that was an ambitious and imaginative idea. So I did that and presented it to them in 2000, though I started my conversations with them as early as '97 or '98. Then they invited me twice more to do it. Then it just never got out of my system. It started with having heard from each side of the fence, I guess you could say. Then it broadened and I became more interested in the body in general. My interviews have spanned to people who make a living off of having a body that is designed to do certain things — athletes like Lance Armstrong; models like Veronica Webb; people who are known to do commentaries of the body, like Eve Ensler. Then I went further and became curious about images of the body that I started seeing, in particular, on the front page of the New York Times. Images of African people. I went to Africa. I went to South Africa and Uganda to look at [AIDS vaccine candidate] HIVA [which is being tested there]. I went to Rwanda, because it was ten years after the genocide. I started thinking about that. What happens after a body is destroyed because of war or tribal difference or, in this extreme case, genocide? Did you talk to Rwandan victims?
ADS: Yes. I talked victims and to predators. I was there in 2005 and they were now releasing some of the Hutus from prison and they were still in the process of having these community trials, where the Hutus who had conducted the genocide would confront the community and say what they had done. And then the community would decide if their confession was satisfactory and true and whether they were going to forgive them or not. I actually went to Landstuhl Hospital in Germany, which is where our troops from Iraq come to be in good enough shape to go home. You talked to the soldiers there?
ADS: I talked to some soldiers and doctors there. The scope of the project grew. I have done a lot of other things these past seven years, but I have to say, in terms of the theatre, nothing else really grabbed me, although so many things have happened in the world, and some that you think I would have written a play about, like 9/11. I did go to New Orleans as part of this project. I did think about doing a whole Katrina play. Yes. Originally the play was going to be done at the Public Theater, but it was postponed and the reason given was your new research in Hurricane Katrina.
ADS: Yeah. It kind of just took longer. Now it has a couple excerpts from Katrina in it. I interviewed doctors, particularly at Charity Hospital, which was the oldest hospital for poor people in America. I talked to people who lost things in the hurricane. I talked to [reporter] Anderson Cooper. How many interviews are in the show so far?
ADS: About 35. In your last major work, House Arrest, about life for residents of the White House, you intermingled your usual performances of people you've interviewed with some standard playwritten scenes. Will you be doing the same here?
ADS: No, not in the same way. I think you would see seeds of my usual model here, explored slightly differently. In the past decade, since you've begun work on this piece, have you yourself experienced anything regarding the resilience of your own body?
ADS: Not in terms of my own health. However, in this past decade, I have seen the culture become more concerned about health care, more concerned with cancer. I've lost people. My mother died. Two of the characters in the play died. I would say that my own interest and curiosity and desire for understanding about mortality — and the opposite: life — has increased pretty dramatically. Who is the most unusual person we'll see in this piece?
ADS: I learned a lesson from my mother. There were five of us kids and she would always refuse to say who was her favorite. To give anybody a mark of being extraordinary in any kind of way would put me in danger of the characters not appreciating me. We have invited the real people to see the opening night of the play. Though I doubt the Minister of Defense of Rwanda is going to come. (Laughs)