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Social Theater: Citizenship in Action

Lab Notes I: Trends from the New York Lab | Fast-Changing Citizenship

Anna Deavere Smith

Anna Deavere Smith is an astonishing chameleon. Over the years her solo performances have brought to life—via matchless attention to gesture and voice—hundreds of “characters” across the globe. These hard-to-categorize plays combine theater, journalism, biography, and social critique.

Smith examines complex cultural problems such as the health-care crisis or race riots by interviewing people, transcribing their speech, then restaging excerpts in productions that feature surprising juxtapositions of viewpoints. As she says in this Democracy Now! interview: “If you think of my work like a dinner party, it’s having people at the table whom you’d never think of having at the table together.”

Her dinner parties keep getting larger. For the 1992 piece Fires in the Mirror, Smith interviewed more than 50 subjects (politicians, activists, residents) about riots that erupted in Crown Heights, Brooklyn after a Jewish man accidentally struck and killed a Caribbean-American boy with his car. Two years later Smith premiered Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, based on 175 interviews concerning riots that followed the acquittal of LAPD officers who beat Rodney King. Los Angeles suffered one billion dollars in damage during the chaos.

Smith’s new play Let Me Down Easy arises from hundreds of interviews. It began with a visiting professorship at Yale School of Medicine, which asked her to investigate doctor-patient relations inside Yale-New Haven Hospital. Then Stanford School of Medicine wanted Smith to do something similar there. Soon after that she got funds to conduct more interviews in Texas, Rwanda, Uganda, and South Africa. Let Me Down Easy premiered in 2008 and toured the United States in 2011.

Robert Hurwitt of the San Francisco Chronicle describes the play as “pure theatrical gold.” He says it explores our nation’s health-care crisis “from so many different angles that it can’t help but advance the conversation.” Physician and New York Times columnist Pauline Chen notes how this diverse range helped her understand that “listening to others, particularly to patients, requires letting go of a part of yourself.”

But despite obvious distinctions in the medical experiences of rich and poor patients, an underlying vulnerability emerges. Mortality binds us all. Smith shows, like the greatest philosophers, our “feeble and failing pieces” (to borrow an expression from Michel de Montaigne). We’re reacquainted with the basic fact that we won’t live forever. The play’s humanness has tremendous humanizing force: it makes us more present, caring, loving; it makes us savor fleeting life.

When I watch Let Me Down Easy, I’ll always catch myself transcribing Smith’s transcriptions out of the desire to grow close to each subject. I want to become a better listener. Dialogue is social practice, citizenship in action. Below are 15 characters from PBS’s Great Performances production. My hope is that this slideshow indicates the piece’s chameleonic range. No conventional summary suffices because Smith portrays real—that is to say, unsummarizable—people.


James H. Cone, Professor, Union Theological Seminary, New York

“People need something to sustain them in times of difficulty—whether that’s personal, whether that’s social.”


Elizabeth Streb, Choreographer, Streb Dance Company, New York

“What about you? How would you like to die? Oh come on. Don’t you know the lights are gonna go out in a particular way? Does it scare you, the idea of dying? It’s sad, right?”


Lance Armstrong, Tour de France Victor and Cancer Survivor

“People say, ‘Why were you motivated to win? Was it fame? Was it money? Was it, whatever . . . was it a trophy?’ Whereas with the disease, the fear there—the motivation there—is failure, ’cause failure is death.”


Brent Williams, Rodeo Bull Rider, Idaho

“Yeah I got insurance: Blue Cross of Idaho, family policy. 260 bucks a month cover all of us. Then we got a $7,500 deductible—which is stupid. We don’t ever meet that.”


Hazel Merritt, Patient, Yale-New Haven Hospital

“Dialysis? I’m not having any dialysis. I’m not having dialysis, doctor.”


Lauren Hutton, Supermodel, New York

“I’m your stereotypical ignorant patient. When I go to the doctor I don’t ask any questions . . . well, I ask what I can. But it just seems like, you know, I’m asking about plant life on Mars. I don’t know anything about plant life on Mars.”


Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, Physician, Charity Hospital, New Orleans

“We have students—privileged students—who come from all over to train at Charity [a public hospital serving poor New Orleans residents], and they come with their own baggage about what Charity is. ‘Our population’: that’s kind of a common phrase, meaning ‘the people we treat and are distancing ourselves from.’”


Philip A. Pizzo, Dean, Stanford University School of Medicine

“What I fear is happening is we are slipping into a health-care system in this country that will look very much, unless it’s changed dramatically, like that of a developing nation.”


Eduardo Bruera, Physician, MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston

“It’s not possible to turn dying into a picnic. We are just not built to assume with a smile the end of our lives. Some of us will, but most of us will not.”


Ann Richards, Former Texas Governor

“I have a surgeon. I have an oncologist. I have a radiologist. In cancer you have a team. And there’s so much collaboration; everyone knows everything about your case.”


Lorraine Coleman, Retired Teacher, Smith’s Aunt

“One thing I miss: When we were little I didn’t have gloves. But when we would come home from school, Mother—your grandma—would be standing at the door, and she would put my hands underneath her arms. You know I miss that.”


Joel Siegel, Movie Critic, ABC News

Let Me Down Easy. I like those words. I like ’em a lot. I love the imagery. I see a hand putting me into the ground and very gently moving away.”


Peter J. Gomes, Minister, The Memorial Church, Harvard University

“One of the most important things you can do for someone is to be with them when they die.”


Trudy Howell, Director, Chance Orphanage, Johannesburg

“Children always want to know: ‘Can we come back to Chance Orphanage when we’re dead?’ And I just tell them, I just say: ‘You’re always in my heart. Even if you’ve passed away, you’re always in my heart. You’re always with me.’”


Matthieu Ricard, Buddhist Monk

“We think about death all the time—but not at all in a morbid way—to give richness to every moment of life.”

Lab Notes I is an eight-week series focusing on trends that emerged from the BMW Guggenheim Lab New York. Curators Maria Nicanor and David van der Leer, blogger Christine McLaren, and a prominent group of guest contributors will explore the forces and transformations shaping the future of cities. The series will focus on four successive trends; the third is Fast-Changing Citizenship.