Anna Deavere Smith’s uncannily accurate vocal/physical impersonations are abundantly evident in Let Me Down Easy, making its world premiere at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theater. But they’re just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Her latest anthology of quick-sketch impressions — this one focused on the theme of the body — also includes her ease in homing in on the core message of our meandering human musings and, even before she starts culling and editing, her skill in getting her interview subjects to spill.
Among the figures she captures in this latest compilation are Lance Armstrong, analyzing the factors of his cancer-defying Tour de France victories in an offhand near-monotone, and Washington Post sports columnist Sally Jenkins, fulminating about the doping scandal that expunged Marion Jones’ triumphs at the 2000 Olympics and now seems to be rippling ever wider. (“I want to know how running a foot race ends with a six-month prison sentence!” Jenkins rants. “Scooter Libby, his sentence was commuted!”) The ensuing segments with a boxer and bull-rider seem to augur a vector confined to exploring the challenges of peak performance — of interest to sports fans and aspirants, perhaps, but lacking the breadth of Smith’s prior investigations.
But then she morphs into tough, edgy choreographer Elizabeth Streb recalling an especially incendiary performance and the canvas widens, the pace picks up. Hear her channel Harvard professor Michael Sandel as he lectures on the current quest for bodily perfection as the “last frontier” for a population who’ve abandoned all hope of social change, and you’ll want to run home and Google his collected works, to learn more about his admonition to remain “open to the unbidden.”
Now, with lightning-speed scene changes (abetted by David Rockwell’s spare but adaptable set, a trap-riddled platform set meaningfully above a jumble of mechanical detritus amid a weedy sandlot), Smith is off and running to Africa (consulting a sex hotel manager in Johannesburg, soliciting the testimony of genocide survivors — and a perpetrator — in Rwanda), New Orleans post-Katrina (with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, a physician “abandoned” along with her charity-ward charges, and an upbeat, easy-going jazz musician); and back to Yale-New Haven Hospital, where this project originated with an invitation to interview doctors and patients and share their stories at grand rounds.
There are other revelatory stops along the way. Standouts among the thirty or so personae whom Smith ably inhabits is the late Texas ex-governor Ann Richards, shown tucking into a meal of Chilean sea bass as she ruminates with typical humorous bluster about the need to cut back on commitments while coping with cancer. She mimics fielding a phone call: “I cain’t talk to you right now — you’re usin’ up my chi.” (Eve Ensler, channeled earlier, ideates another locus for the life force, and Smith captures her “V-Day” fervor with punchy succinctness.)
Not everyone succumbs to terminal disease with the panache that Richards exhibits. In Smith’s portrayal, ABC movie critic Joel Siegel lacks any trace of movie-of-the-week fortitude in the face of imminent death. He’s unbecomingly bitter but, under questioning, warms mournfully to the title of Smith’s project: “I see a hand putting me into the grave.” At heart that’s what Smith is doing here: reminding us, in a deeply humane fashion, of the fate that awaits us all, or at any rate of the care we need to take of others or of ourselves while we still have time.
Several figures — a mother standing fierce yet joyous guard on a pediatric cancer ward, or the final character we encounter, the director of an AIDS orphanage in Africa — provide stirring images of compassion in action. Yet oddly, brilliantly, it’s that Idaho rodeo champ we encountered early on whose counsel echoes on as Smith concludes this extraordinary journey: “Hang on till the whistle blows, even if you’re riding upside-down.”