Don’t Let Me Down Easy, Ms. Smith, Do It Exactly Your Way
Last night’s show (#33) has vaulted to the top of my list of top shows for the year. I don’t like to make lists of favorites in a business that should value collaboration more than competition. In this case, I am sure that I’ll remember this production throughout the rest of this year. I knew it would be memorable from the start, where Anna Deavere Smith has such a strong and distinguished reputation for her documentary theatre work. This was the first time I had seen her perform live, after being familiar with her film and television work for a long time – going all the way back to the movie Dave in 1993. Because of this long knowledge, I found the show initially to be a slighly cathartic experience reminiscent of the first time I saw childhood favorite musician Carly Simon perform live in Boston in 2005. (I soon settled down.) I was also rewarded with a front row seat to the performance, a likely happy byproduct of identifying myself as an under 30 theatergoer. I remember a similar arrangement when I saw The Lieutenant of Inishmore at Berkeley Rep just over two years ago. I’d chosen this particular night to attend the show as Berkeley Rep was hosting its monthly “30 Below” post-show party in the courtyard following their performance. This led to an intriguing photograph of their wall projection as I left for the evening…
It goes without saying that Smith doesn’t let anyone down easy, in the basic sense of the term. What intrigued me was how Smith became the conduit for each individual voice to come through. She interviewed between 10 and 20 people for the project – I’m not sure if everyone she spoke with was included in the show. Following the initial “recruitment” process, Smith reviewed any tapes, notes, etc that she made in the interviews. It was clear that she soon followed this with a meticulous physical and vocal training to embody any and/or all characteristics of the subject. In the final product, this method created a haunting vitality and lucid directness to each character – coupled with the knowledge that everyone is a real person. No fiction and no fooling. Smith also poignantly included at least two individuals and celebrities, Ann Richards and Joel Siegel, who have since died from cancer complications. She added a family touch, including her aunt in Baltimore in one segment. All of the interviews structured themselves around some minor to major health care issue that had affected the subject or continued to challenge them.
The theatrics of the piece were never lost and always present. Smith carefully moved from one subject to the next, signifying a transition with a brief jazz interlude and sometimes a costume change. As I noted above, her vocal shifts were striking, ranging from the deep inflictions of Harvard minister Peter Gomes (whom I met once and didn’t know had recently died until Googling him just now…) to the twanged inflictions of an Oklahoma/heartland truck driver. Sometimes Smith engaged other media to tell the story, as with two instances when onstage video cameras swung into action (while she faced away from the house), instead of her projecting directly to the audience. She inventively used props throughout the show, including real, fresh, food, and offered a complimentary beer to the couple sitting next to me as part of one story.
Clearly I could go on about this show in further detail. What I most appreciated is its total freshness and topicality: the stories stayed vivid in my mind as I sailed back over the Richmond Bridge home to Marin at 11pm last night… and will continue to linger. It demonstrates a true power of theatre and social change that I always embrace, using stories and artistic media to tie directly to the present moment.