Anna Deavere Smith
(© Mary Ellen Mark)
Anna Deavere Smith
(© Mary Ellen Mark)
In her amazing one-woman, multi-character show, Let Me Down Easy, Anna Deavere Smith presented conversations with more than 20 people (out of over 300 people she interviewed) to paint both a compelling cross-section of humanity and examine the issues of life, death, and healthcare that pervade our American culture.

The February 2011 production of the show at Washington D.C.'s Arena Stage Theatre has been preserved by PBS and will be broadcast on Friday, January 13 as part of THIRTEEN's Great Performances series. TheaterMania recently spoke to Smith about the show, landing her role as hospital administrator Gloria Akalitus on Showtime's hit series Nurse Jackie, and her next theater project.

THEATERMANIA: How important is it to you to have PBS broadcast Let Me Down Easy?
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: It's pretty essential so more people can see the show. I am so pleased that PBS is invested in getting art out there. They are one of the rare organizations who still care about it.

TM: You performed this show all over the country for more than three years. Did you find different reactions in different parts of the country?
ADS: Yes. While I was in Philadelphia, one of the characters, Aunt Lorraine, really grew from the warm reaction of that audience, although I am not sure why. I was surprised it went so well in San Diego. I think that audience just wanted to have a good time, and that gave the show a different energy. Los Angeles amazed me. We think of it as this shallow place, but really, people come there chasing dreams and when you don't get your dreams fulfilled, you search for what life is about. And Berkeley, of course, felt like home. It's where my seeds are, and I really became an artist there.

TM: Was there one character that seemed to resonate the most with audiences?
ADS: Yes, audiences most wanted to talk to me about the young white doctor who worked at Charity Hospital in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, and whose patients were left abandoned and not helped for six days. Most people who come to the theater are middle-class, educated people, and they don't want to believe that America is like that.

TM: Do you think the country is actually paying attention to what's happening with healthcare?
ADS: I think it's why the Occupy movement was one of the most effective progressive moments we've seen in a long time, because we are thinking about the inherent unfairness in life and society, and we are concerned about whether we're treating people without resources like trash. And the reality is, health care is not just about how we're treated in hospitals -- it's impossible for us to proceed with our current system economically. I am afraid that where we are headed with health care is that we will become like those developing nations that serve only the wealthy citizens. We did some research in Africa, and I kissed the ground when we got home that my entire team got out of Africa without getting hurt in any way. I would not want anyone I know in one of those public hospitals; it's an abomination.

Anna Deavere Smith inLet Me Down Easy
(© Joan Marcus)
Anna Deavere Smith in
Let Me Down Easy
(© Joan Marcus)
TM: Your tour ended in September. Do you miss performing the show live?
ADS: I haven't stopped completely. I snuck away recently on one Saturday and performed the show for about 2,500 people at the Association for American Medical Colleges. And that's really my longtime goal with this show -- to get DVDs done and send it to all the medical schools in the country.

TM: Did the fact that your TV series, Nurse Jackie, involves the health care industry influence your decision to be a part of the show?
ADS: No. I wish I had the ability to make those sort of decisions. I don't get many film or television jobs without auditioning and I audition so badly that the fact I got this job was a miracle. When I read the pilot script, I laughed so hard that my dog thought something was wrong with me, and that's why I auditioned.

TM: What's your next theater project?
ADS: I am leaving on Saturday to go to Grace Cathedral in San Francisco to be an artist-in-residence there, and work on a piece about grace, which will be presented there on February 17 and 18. I've already written the script, since a lot of material comes from what I acquired doing the interviews for Let Me Down Easy, but that haven't seen the light of day. The exciting thing about this project is that I'm working with the cellist Joshua Roman, and it's the first time I get to collaborate live with a musician.

TM: Will it have a future life?
ADS: Right now, there are no definite plans, but I am never sure what's going to happen with my work. Of course, people with common sense, like my accountant, want it to go beyond there given all the work I've put into it. I'm not really sure what's next in my career. Sometimes, I think I just want to open a bed and breakfast.