Baltimore native Anna Deavere Smith is a national treasure. Her oft-stated mission—“to search for American character”—would seem to be a worthy, though potentially unwieldy, endeavor for an actress/playwright creating one-woman shows, but Smith gets at the core of that character. Rather than approaching it from a single, narrow perspective (a la Spalding Gray), she nails it by widening the scope and presenting multiple voices and a wide variety of characters. That’s the American way, right?
In her current show, Let Me Down Easy—which plays at D.C.’s Arena Stage through Sunday—Smith plays 20 different characters, from supermodel Lauren Hutton and film critic Joel Siegel to theologians, activists, athletes, healthcare workers, cancer patients, and even her Aunt Lorraine. It’s a … insert overused metaphor here (melting pot, patchwork quilt, etc.)… of American society, but Smith gets beyond such banal symbolism by eschewing stereotypes and bringing each character’s humanity to the fore.
She reportedly conducts hundreds of interviews for each of her projects (previous shows include 1992’s Fires in the Mirror and 1993’s Twilight) and whittles them down to a couple dozen that best suit her purpose. The lines she recites onstage are drawn entirely from those interviews.
At Arena Stage last Sunday, Smith came onstage dressed in a white shirt and black slacks, with no shoes. Smith’s being barefoot is a small, but telling, detail, because shoes can be an immediate tip-off to someone’s race, ethnicity, or class. In fact, I once haggled with a vendor in Mexico and was mystified that he wouldn’t cut me a break, until he finally said, “Look at your boots. You can afford it.”
I’ll bet Smith understands this sort of thing and how such a detail, if overlooked, could spoil what she’s trying to accomplish. After all, what sort of footwear would work for playing a rodeo bull rider, former Texas governor Ann Richards, and a Buddhist monk, all of whom Smith portrays in this show? Performing barefoot, she also sidesteps that tired metaphor—one that likely dogs all character actors—about not appreciating someone’s circumstances until you “step into their shoes.”
Smith opened the show at Arena Stage playing James Cone, the black liberation theologian, and her depiction of Cone was disarming. I’ll bet many folks in the audience expected his character to come off as sharp, edgy, and, dare I say it, militant. Instead, Smith played him as dreamy, vulnerable, and open to suggestion; the overall effect was otherworldly and liberating—it suggested possibilities.
What followed was a smart, witty, and poignant look at aging and mortality and the social constructs we’ve erected—or think we’ve erected—to fend off their effects. The 90-minute show was gripping because all of Smith’s subjects had compelling stories to share, stories that were revealing in some—sometimes, unexpected—way. Armstrong, for instance, came across as more distracted than invincible, and Siegel, the Hollywood cheerleader, exuded a vulnerability and gravitas he never shows on TV. They made an amazing dichotomy, as Armstrong, the much-hyped cancer survivor/celebrity, talked about trivialities such as scheduling and spoke in unintentionally revealing platitudes, while Siegel, talking during a chemo session, expressed the ache of humanity.
Smith’s Aunt Lorraine, a retired Baltimore schoolteacher, may have been the best character of all. Leaning on a cane, she was telling a church friend about how, when she was a child, her parents couldn’t afford gloves for her or her siblings. After school, they’d run home in the cold, and their mother would meet them at the door, get them inside, and warm their freezing hands under her arms. It was a tender and moving image that brought many in the audience to tears.
Then, Aunt Lorraine related how her friend, after hearing this anecdote, told her, “Well, I’m not your mother.” And the audience howled.
Smith’s timing was perfect, and she’s a gifted mimic. She found the nuances and rhythms in the material and delivered it without exaggerating or overdoing it. She never flailed.
As a result, she’s able to untangle and convey a complex sense of American optimism, expectations, and democratic ideals and the inevitable blind spots and hypocritical behavior generated by such a worldview. And that’s the ultimate triumph of Let Me Down Easy and Smith’s body of work.