The other night, March 8th,I attended Anna Deavere Smith’s excerpts from her one-woman performance, Let Me Down Easy, at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland -College Park. I know of Smith from Twilight: Los Angeles and Fires from the Mirror as well as from my voice teacher, Leigh Smiley, incorporating techniques Smith employs in our curriculum of Linklater work back when I took her class. Smith’s works have stayed with me since I did a stage management project of Twilight back in high school, for years now. But only upon seeing her in person does the full effect of her presence(s) truly give the earnest of earnest impacts. Not just dead words on paper that come to life in the reader’s mind, but the experience of seeing and hearing and feeling a person consumed with his/her moment right before my very eyes.
Only a few monologues from Smith’s latest work were performed the other night, but the work still has an astounding impact on me. Aside from a theatrical standpoint, of Smith’s technique and her comfort in her work, the message of the work startles and scares me. After writing this blog post once and having WordPress (or myself by accident) delete it, I’m almost too questioning and afraid to write again. But perserve I must! Smith’s work shakes me mostly because her questions and journey resonates to me to the point that my bones shake. A number of months ago, my aunt died due to hospital negligence (aka manslaughter–an insulin overdose that they tried to hide), my mom had anon-invasivesurgery just the other day, my dad’s having hipsurgery ina few days, and I just went to the dentist yesterday. The concept of ‘Will my insurance cover it?’ and ‘Can I trust this doctor?’ ring too close to home. After all, we want our doctors to be safe and comforting–caring and compassionate, not mechnical scientists, theorists, or puzzle-solvers alone. Smith’s characters spoke from various viewpoints: male, female, young, old, American, non-American; and all along, while she doesn’t care to connect the similarities (well that’s my take), the truth is that the only solace available is death. Perhaps it’s too niave to rely on our healthcare system to truly be our backbone-our crutch-our safeguard that if we are sick, we can be saved. After all, with the latest healthcare act passed in 2010, universal healthcare that comes as a standardis still a myth. Even with caring for the homeless or lack thereof, people suffer and the system isn’t perfect so it in doing so screws people over. What can be done?
One of Smith’s characters touched me beyond all the rest: Trudy Howell,a white South African woman who cared for dying children and infants. She spoke so strongly, “Don’t leave them in the dark,” that we are the light in the tunnel, not at the end of the tunnel. She spoke to communicate the message that all we can do is care for another human being when that person’s end-of-time is at hand. The doctors just walk away, another of Smith’s characters said, their job trying to save the patient is over. And who cares for the patient when that happens? Hopefully, family. Howell knew her gift to these children, to herself, and to God, was to say, ‘You can always come back here and visit, there’s always a home for you here.’
Smith spoke of her characters not as her characters but as real people. As an audience member, it was made abundantly clear that all of the people she interviewed were real people and she was bringing a bit of them, if not all of them, to us so they could speak to us too. The magic of theatre, is it not?
Another of Smith’s characters, understood that magic wasn’t in stories but in the cold hard reality that with the snap of a finger things don’t suddenly solve themselves. Another woman,Kiersta Kurz-Burke, a nurse, a whitewoman, who worked at Charity Hospital after Katrina, was amazed and shocked to see that she was the only one who did not know she couldn’t rely on the system to save her and her patients. She felt naive to think better. Charity Hospital, a hospital for the poor, was the last of the last–the bottom of the bottom–to receive aid, it seems; and Kurz-Burke soon came to realize she was so used to respect and courtesy–that as she wanted her patients to feel respected and safe, her fellow nurses (of ethnic minority) were used to this treatment. They knew better, that you can’t rely on the government, and that the government’s too big and people too small to find any comfort there.
I’m afraid too, that as idealistic as I can be, this 2010 healthcare act won’t be as big a stretch amongst America’s history of trying to push civil rights and medical safety to what it truly should be: a given and a respected thing not taken for granted. At the end of her performance, Smith said she was more fascinated by the pecularities of all of the people she met than the similarities. It makes me think that what she is saying is that we’re of course similar, the true test and the true caliber of our getting together lies in our respecting and embracing our differences–pecularities, than just glossing it all over with similarity. World peace doesn’t come by happiness and holding hands, it comes by respecting boundaries, promoting tolerance and acceptance, and learning when to speak and when to be silent. There’s wisdom in thought before speech, and either truth or ignorance in speech before thought. Smith understands and promotes that making the world a better and safer place is not simply thinking about dialogue, but engaging in it. Better care when people are sick and in need depends not just on government, but on individuals. No one enjoys feeling sick–how can it become something of the past?
In an article from The Diamondback, Smith says, “What I think will happen if I’m working well … is you’re all bringing something about this dilemma, the vulnerability of your body, the resilience of spirit, the price of care,” Smith said. “If I’m working well, what will happen is an adjustment about what you brought.” But how does inspiration truly bring about social action? When I saw Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter only weeks ago at Clarice Smith, it looked as if I was the only one who had signed up for the charity’s listserv outside! Now, I’m sure many audience members were veterans there, and the play came home for their families and themselves, but for those unrelated directly, how can a traumatic issue drive someone to selfless action? Perhaps I care too much, or want our country to push people into public service? For a new call to action to fill young peoples’ hearts with honor and humility and tolerance and respect! …Perhaps that’s too idealistic for realistic implementation.
When Smith said at the end of her talk back, “One of the biggest compliments I ever got about Let Me Down Easy … [was that], in the course of the time I was performing, I created a community out of those strangers in the audience,” I heard a flurry of murmurs in the audience. And this was all just the May 8th performance. “That’s what I want to do.” How can we spark social action? It’s still something she’s exploring. Is it something that sparks you too?
Anna Deavere Smith performed May 8th and May 9th at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. For more information, visitclaricesmithcenter.umd.edu/2010/c/performances/performance?rowid=11264. For more Anna Deavere Smith insiders from Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, visitclaricesmithcenter.umd.edu/2010/c/engage09/more-than-great-performance/anna-deavere-smith – Great videos!