Anna Deavere Smith, Human Tape-Recorder Extraordinaire

"Let me down easy," is a phrase that comforted Joel Siegel, the ABC film critic who died of cancer in 2007. "I see a hand, carrying me to the ground, gently," he told Anna Deavere Smith before his death.

In her new show, Let Me Down Easy, Smith once again employs her craft as a human tape-recorder to invite us to meditate on the themes of death and dying, illness, resilience and care giving.

In the early nineties, Anna Devere Smith was credited with creating a new form of theater. It is theater-as-journalism or anthropologic performance. But it is language that Smith is really after. Smith's performances consist of the verbatim reiteration of transcribed interviews. She captures cadence, dialect, the music of language as she embodies the characters she recreates.

In 1992, Smith staged Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Other Identities. The following year, she staged Twilight: Los Angeles. Both plays concerned specific clashes of races that had recently erupted into urban violence.

With uncannily deft dialects, Smith voiced the views of blacks, whites, Jews, Latinos and Asians. The presence of one person communicating such a cacophony conveys, on a purely impressionistic level, our shared humanity. She emerged as a pioneering cultural historian cum performance artist.

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In her newest performance piece, Let Me Down Easy, Smith does not build her play around a specific event or place; at its core it is a philosophic piece that transcends place and culture. Smith travels from Washington to New Haven to Texas to South Africa to New Orleans to talk to people about the human body, its unyielding physical capacity and its ultimate mortality.

She interviews doctors, patients, academics, supermodels, theologians, elite athletes and politicians and finds -- not surprisingly -- that there are many different philosophies and approaches to dying, terminal illness and patient care. To the extent that the show is political, there is pretty much a consensus that quality health care is something available to the rich and denied to the poor.

And perhaps the most powerful segment of the performance speaks -- eloquently -- to this subject. Smith channels Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, a physician who worked at Charity Hospital during the six 100 degree days when the New Orleans hospital was left with no electricity, food or water after Katrina. Kurtz-Burke describes her initial certainty that the government would help, and her growing realization that the patients, and the black nurses she worked with, were correct in their understanding that, in fact, they had been abandoned. The doctor's words are heartbreaking as she comes to grasp the experience of the poor, underserved population. Help is not coming and the system is not there -- and has never been there -- to assist this community.

There are other amazing moments that reveal courage in the face of exceedingly painful intimacy with tragic death. Smith's portrayal of Trudy Howell, who cares for AIDS orphans in South Africa is equally wrenching. Howell's impossible task is to bring comfort and a sort of preparation to parentless children who will die very soon.

For those who have seen Smith's previous work, Let Me Down Easy is not the stunning revelation of Smith's brilliant technique that it was the first time around. The first or second or third time you see Smith work her magic it really feels like the channeling of persons both renowned and voiceless; the power of the performance will take your breath away. Here, the technical skill is still impressive, if somewhat less awe inspiring.

Whether or not Smith's magic is novel and whether these characters are as compelling as those in other shows (some are indeed not), Smith's most significant accomplishment is in revealing the impact of the spontaneously spoken word. As she lets her subjects talk and think and hesitate and talk some more, what emerges is often quite magnificent. And we are struck with the spontaneously spoken word's ability to communicate surprising truths.

Let Me Down Easy runs through July 10, 2011 at Berkeley Repertory Theater. For tickets and information visit berkeleyrep.org.

All photos: Joan Marcus.

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