Playwright/actor Anna Deavere Smith’s work is not exactly light entertainment for a knitter’s Lazy Sunday. Recently, I saw Smith’s new play, Notes from the Field. It was a brilliantly challenging evening, and it recalled to me the only other time I had spent with Smith. In 2009, I saw Smith’s performance of her play, Let Me Down Easy. It was a few months after Peter’s death, and the play was part of a subscription that he and I had shared for years with another couple, at Second Stage Theatre. Typically, the four of us rushed to the theatre from our respective daytime posts, without even knowing what play we’d be seeing that night. This night was no different. I remember looking up at the poster as we went in, and thinking, “Anna Deavere Smith! I’ve always wanted to see her!”
Let Me Down Easy did not let me down easy. The play started out with people like Lance Armstrong and Lauren Hutton talking about health, health care and health insurance–at times, being ridiculous and funny–then it went to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the rampant injustices there. Then, Smith turned to dying, dying from cancer, and the importance–the holiness–of the experience of being with someone in their last moments. I completely lost it. Uncontrollable, ugly crying in public. The three of us were seated in the middle of a long row; there was no escape. My friends passed me tissue after tissue, and before long we were all sobbing. (Luckily–luckily?–we could hear sniffles and snurgles from all over the theatre. It seemed to be the thing to do.) It was an incredible evening at the theatre, and I suppose it did me a lot of good. As the lights came up, I told my friends, “NEXT TIME WE ARE GOING TO READ THE EFFING REVIEW FIRST, OK?”
Unfortunately, I cannot find Let Me Down Easy available to view anywhere, although it was featured on PBS Great Performances a few years ago. (Here’s a video with some clips from Let Me Down Easy.) I will never forget that evening, and I will always be in awe of Smith. The amount of work, insight, memory, understanding, withholding of judgment, and compassion that goes into her plays and performances is mind-boggling.
My search for video of Smith yielded up this full-length piece: Twilight: Los Angeles, in which Smith’s focus is on the 1992 riots after the verdict in the first Rodney King trial. It’s riveting. It’s not easy. I got a big swath of garter stitch done while watching it. At the top of the post, I’ve also linked to a video of Smith’s Fires in the Mirror, Part I.
I would say “enjoy,” but that’s not the right word. Experience!