Catching Anna Deavere Smith’s latest one-woman show Let Me Down Easy in Berkeley, I was struck by the many facets of her genius:
- She’s invented a new theatrical genre, which merges performance with journalism, two unlikely pairings if there ever were.
- Describing an event (like the riots after the Rodney King beating in Twilight: Los Angeles) or a topic (Let Me Down Easy explores the life and death issues in healthcare), she somehow manages to transcend what a documentary filmmaker might accomplish with the same material. Both Smith and the documentarian rely on the primary interview for source material. And both try to weave stories by presenting the interviewees words verbatim. But where the documentarian arranges a stream of different people on screen, Smith uses her own body and voice as the lens. Everything the audience sees and hears comes through her, and the effect is remarkable. Though she ably performs the vocal and physical ticks of her various interviewees (including, in Let Me Down Easy, a boxer, several doctors, and Lance Armstrong), somehow she tells a coherent, wildly compelling story, by making herself the vessel. All the preconceptions the audience might bring to seeing Lance Armstrong or a black boxer on screen are gone, and only their language remains.
- Smith is a good but not great actress, but her performances are mostly riveting and delightful. Stack her against a character actor like Philip Seymour Hoffman, and it’s clear that the strength of her craft is not just the performance but the creation of the piece itself, starting with the idea, continuing through the interview, and ending in her on-stage communion with an audience.
Truly an extraordinary creator.