The Bodies of Others - Let Me Down Easy
|Read their thoughts|
Honors peer mentor
Honors peer mentor
President, Lasell College
|Professor Mary Ruppert-Stroescu
Chair and Professor of Fashion
|Dr. Steve Bloom
Dean of Undergraduate Education
|Professor Stephen Fischer
|Professor Hortense Gerardo
Anthropology and Humanities
|Professor Stephanie Athey
Honors Program Director
Reflecting upon Anna Deavere Smith’s “Let Me Down Easy,” I traveled a few years back in time to when I was a freshman in the Honors Program. I recall being whisked away for the theatre experience, only to be distracted and disappointed by the tumble weeds, bad guitar strumming, and drinking cowboys of “True West.” When first-year honors students came up to me during intermission to ask if they could leave, or what my opinion was on them hailing a taxi back to Auburndale, I couldn’t help but think “You have no idea how much better you have it”!!
In context of dramatic themes hitting home for the audience, Smith didn’t disappoint. I looked forward to seeing what a black-clad stage hand would wheel out next: would it be some yellow flats? A coffee cup resting on an end table? A charming lunch spread, complete with a bud vase? No details were overlooked in Smith’s undertaking of each individual. As much as I enjoyed hearing the stories of each character, I couldn’t help but think that some carried on too much-- and why were some repeated (Reverend James Cone, for example)?
The second half of “Let Me Down Easy” was more to my liking, with Elizabeth Streb’s humorous fire dance and the high-pitched “chi” talk of Ann Richards. As the Buddhist Monk Matthieu Ricard flipped over the tea cup from Richard’s lunch, I thought the play would be over, but more characters had to have their say. If I were to offer Smith one piece of constructive criticism, I would recommend tightening up the dialogues (less of the jockey!) and the overall timing of the play.“Grace,” in the sense used by Anna Deavere Smith in "Let Me Down Easy," is the act of conducting oneself with dignity, power and competence under the most trying of circumstances. Ms. Smith exhibited all these qualities in her performance. Nevertheless, at intermission I found myself worried that all I was seeing was a set of disjointed vignettes and that the thread she was purporting to weave would not tie together the disparate parts. In the second act, it came together for me. But how?
In reflecting on this question, I believe for me there were two keys sections, which on the surface may have seemed a bit out of place with the others. Many of the “interviews” revealed scenes of brutality or desperation. But the scenes of Elaine Scarry in her garden and Susan Youens reflecting on Schubert brought in the element of sheer, unadulterated beauty. For me there can be no grace without beauty. When I think of grace, I think of a leopard in motion. Its vicious power at once a piece of and a master of its ecosystem. Prof. Scarry looked upon her garden with the same wonder. Prof. Youens worshiped Schubert’s persevering creation of beauty out of disease, ugliness and despair. These two scenes brought the others into focus for me and made the many whole.
Personal: During and after this performance, I was struck by the profound complexity of the concept of grace. Grace is something that we observe (that gesture was so graceful), we are given (by the grace of God or someone else), and we project (she had the grace to forget their differences and finish the project together).
The Opera Singer's grace was obvious and predictable, as was the lack of grace projected by the jockey's agent. The participation of the academic and administrative characters was also predictable, and although they added a balance to the wrenching participation of the "real people" they had a much weaker impact on my perception of grace. When contemplating the atrocities and tragedies brought to the forefront by the performance that evening, I keep wondering where those people found the strength to project grace when they most certainly had not seen nor were given grace. I can't remember the name of the character, but the image is ingrained into my mind of the woman who told her story while crying with her head in her hands. How incredibly hard it must be to continue living after such an experience.
Anna Deavere Smith brought to life in a palpable, unique way personal experiences of contemporary struggles that I had been exposed to only through reading and TV, initiating a new direction in my thought process.
The performance: My first observation relates to the use of clothing and accessories. Anna Deavere Smith's character transformation centered around her acting abilities, of course, but the choice of wardrobe pieces was so carefully planned to subtly mark the differences in character - a change of shoes, a pair of eyeglasses... reflective of the subtle yet striking current that ran through the performance. So often we take clothing for granted, and this speaks to the powerful symbolism of clothing and accessory choices. She could have been a bit more practiced in attaching that tie (or the wardrobe person should have found an easier system to use); it was awkward at times to see the wings of her collar tickle her chin. I am amazed at how Anna Deavere Smith was able to project the character of a Buddhist monk, with just a piece of orange cloth around her shirt and pants; she was truly transformed while portraying some of the characters, while others seemed to be more "adopted" personalities.
The set was magnificent - the use of tin roofing reminded me of the "bidon-villes" of Morocco and the contrast of that symbol of poverty and struggle against the high-tec projections was symbolic in its own right of the struggles brought forth in the content. While reading the program, I was impressed by the quality of the creative staff, and by the areas included: movement coach - dialect coach - two dramaturg; all extremely accomplished professionals and authors. I feel privileged to have been able to witness a performance of this caliber.
"Let Me Down Easy" was certainly not easy to watch. Anna Deavere Smith opens up deep questions about human nature through one overarching umbrella of a question: "What is grace?" The true mastery of the performance is in its composition. Drawing on a wealth of interviews with markedly varied people she never loses poignancy. Threading a rabbi, with a jockey, with a dance choreographer and so on, into a coherent and pointed work is true genius.
However her performances can only match or let down her subject matter, never truly improve upon them. As she wears so many different personas, you can’t help but notice the ones that don't quite fit. The unintelligible accents or stuttering might be true to the source but they do nothing to improve the impact their words inherently carry. When a persona does fit her, however, as in the case of Samantha Power, it's brilliant mimicry to be sure, but I am not convinced it elevates. Pacing becomes an issue as well. Although Smith starts with quick interconnected shifts from character to character some of her monologues stand alone intolerant to any interruption by another "character." These make for ten or fifteen minute monologues, caliber unquestioned, that drag against your attention.
What Smith does pull off is the ability to emotionally jar you with draining accounts of broken humanity and faultlessly shift into genuine humor as gracefully as the people she is channeling. The production lighting is used to ingenious and full effect. When Smith is the Imam of a New York Mosque, she sits framed in the light of a Mosque’s stone cut portal. When she is in a garden you can see the diffused trickling light coming through the foliage. Her presence dominates not only the stage but the entire room.
In effect I left feeling that Smith had just shown me a diamond polished poorly or, as she might explain, not complete in its polishing. Every theatrical instrument is just as distracting as it is impressive. The impersonations range from distracting to illuminating. The lighting captures the imagination whereas the pictures and videos in the background are unimaginative and dull for the most part. I can’t help but feel that if Smith allowed for her interviews to stand on their own without all these unnecessary crutches she might not have exhausted me as she entertained me.
I was fascinated by Anna Deavere Smith’s ability to inhabit the body and soul of each of the diverse people she interviews to create a rich theatrical display of humanity. Her finely nuanced performance demonstrates how character is revealed through the microscopic details of human behavior – tone of voice, inflection, gesture, facial expression, body language…and clothing (calling all Fashion majors!). Using only these detailed physical traits and strategic articles of clothing, she morphs from one character to the next, creating a continuous flow of humanity, differentiated by race, gender, ethnicity, background, and experience, yet all filtered through the singular consciousness of this talented African-American woman. As we watch Smith’s graceful transformations take place before our eyes, distinguishing characteristics that set us apart from each other – like race and gender – are overwhelmed by a profound sense of our common humanity.
It was a privilege and an honor to see Anna Deavere Smith in this performance. I was mesmerized by her ability to transform into so many characters with such depth and sensitivity. This was not light entertainment. The stories of struggle and the brutal imagery conveyed by her words and multi-media were quite disturbing and magical.
My thanks to the Director of the Honors Program for the opportunity to see, “Let Me Down Easy” at the ART. It was a treat to be in the theatre, and a thrill to experience a live performance by the mesmerizing Anna Deavere Smith. Echoing what many respondents to Professor Athey’s challenge have already written and what Ms. Deavere’s track record clearly demonstrate, she is a performing artist of unquestionable talent. For those who are familiar with some of the better known personages she embodied in her performance, her abilities as a mimic are uncanny.
On the night of the show, I was exhilarated by her performance. In retrospect, I still marvel at it, but the individual monologues, each of which contained an evening’s worth of theatre in their own right, have been reduced to a blur of costume changes and accents. Perhaps it is this emphasis on her performance, and my clear memory of “it” rather than the abstract theme of “grace,” that have caused me to question whether the term “documentary theatre” is an accurate description of what it is that I found appealing about the show.
In the tradition of the genre, I often exhort my documentary film students to be mindful of taking quotes out of context, in order to avoid a broad spectrum of potential misrepresentations about the people one purports to document. With this in mind, I wondered whether some of Ms. Smith’s more famous subjects appreciated being parodied, their speech patterns and mannerisms a source of amusement for the audience. Conversely, I was absorbed by the monologues of the tour guide at the Rwandan Genocide Memorial, and Ingrid Inema, the survivor and witness to a man being stoned to death. However, just at the point where there had been a kind of revelation or horrific epiphany, we (as an audience) were whisked away to yet another caricature, without being given time to digest, or place into context, what it is that we had just heard.
The cathartic moment was miniaturized and repeated several times in the course of the performance to the point of blunting my sensitivity to it.
In an age where news and information is most readily digested in the form of quickly dispensed sound bytes, I appreciated Ms. Smith’s attempt to address a serious subject in depth, but the journey she invites us to take with her at the top of the show is more of a personal meditation we are invited to witness, one which she, herself, says, is still evolving. Perhaps this is why I am left with the feeling that there was no hero or heroine to root for other than Ms. Smith, no clearly-defined conflict, no utterly climactic, cathartic moment, no denouement, and therefore, no satisfying conclusion. I still believe that theatre – the kind that truly engages me and haunts my memory - demands these elements, and its currency is in the form of action rooted on the stage.
That said, I aspire to be as talented and entertaining a performer as Anna Deavere Smith.
No fewer than 127 students and a smaller group of faculty attended “Let Me Down Easy,” at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge on Wednesday and Thursday this week.
This staging of Anna Deavere Smith’s latest work was an excellent example of the innovative, ethnographic style of drama she has pioneered, that is, a one-woman show in which the shapeshifting Smith channels the words, voices and visions of people she herself has interviewed. The subject of those interviews, as Smith tells us at the start of the show is the suffering and resiliance of the human body. But then again, really, she’s interested in the spiritual side of resiliance that buoys up the body, something her interview subjects/characters refer to as “grace.”
The show was in many ways a superb example of the power of theater: the Loeb Drama Center is terrifically intimate, the themes were complex and heavy (genocide from the view of Rwandan perpetrators and survivors, crimes of the US health care bureaucracy, the safety taken for granted by the rich, the risks and abuses lived daily by the poor). The performance itself was intensive, prolonged, moving and uneven.
Did students like it?
One measure, tragically, might be the bluey glow and flicker of text-messaging erupting in a few too many parts of the theater. So said the head usher as he pulled me aside during intermission.
“Excuse me, are you in charge of the group from Lasell?” Uh-oh.
But there are other measures. As Prof. Gerardo said to me the next day, those students who enjoyed the performance really enjoyed it and defended it passionately in class. Beautiful.
And if some first-year Lasell students went to this performance and decided theater was not for them, then at least they are basing that judgment on a fine example--the work of a top-notch artist offering a powerfully evocative work that demanded much from the audience.
More than one student told me, “I didn’t get it,” meaning that the humor in the show was out of reach. As one woman put it:
People in their forties behind us would crack up, and we didn’t understand what they were laughing at. As 18-year-olds, we know the health care system in the US has severe problems, but we don’t understand those problems well enough to get her jokes.
Fair criticism. Engagement with several of the “characters” depended on background knowledge. A winning portrait of the late Texas Governor Ann Richards is a terrific example. Responding to the warmth, humor and “grace” of her monologue is completely dependent on the knowledge that she was a well-loved, wise-cracking, Democratic governor ousted by George W., and now dead of cancer. Whether they know it or not at this point, this kind of insider knowledge is exactly the kind of historical and cultural capital that 18-year-olds are paying, paying a great deal, to get out of their college education.
What did I think?
This student’s criticism is different than mine but not unrelated to it. I don’t object to the set of “insider” cultural references. Instead I was disturbed by the powerful elitism and odd privilege I found deeply present in the structure of the play--that is, the selective arrangement of monologues: who was interviewed and portrayed on stage, what type of weight and significance was given to which speakers, who experienced pain, who got to think about it and analyze it for the audience.
On the one hand, Smith brought before us a host of university deans, theologians, professors, and writers based at Harvard, Yale, Stanford as well as representatives of opera, the arts and journalism. On the other hand, we also met jailed perpetrators, survivors of violence, patients making painful decisions about dialysis or fighting for basic care. One set proved the keepers of knowledge; the other the bearers of experience. While the latter testified to suffering, the former made sense of it.
The play didn’t seem to critique this divide as much as rely on it. While interesting in their own right, figures from elite institutions, largely reflecting on the bodies of others, received recurring roles in this show and anchored it structurally. This aspect of the performance became harder and harder to take while seated comfortably in a theater in the middle of Harvard Square.
College is undeniably the gatekeeper of “insider knowledge” and a gateway to privilege for many in this culture (but no guarantee of that privilege). But more radically, college education can be, should be, a challenge to that privilege. It can shift fundamentally the framework through which one lives, analyzes, and acts in the world. It should pass on the tools of social action and the example of social movements. It can spur unsettling personal transformations and spark revolutionary change.
For this reason, in the days since the play, I’ve thought a lot about the traditions in theater that have aimed at nothing less than revolution. Plays have moved audiences well beyond pity and terror on to outrage and laughter and action: strikes, demonstrations, boycotts.
These traditions include Augusto Baol’s “theater of the oppressed,” Mbongeni Ngema and other playwrights of South Africa’s black resistance theater under apartheid, the work of American Luis Valdez’s Teatro Campesino organizing farm workers with César Chávez, or the award-winning efforts of Magdalena Gomez’s newly launched Teatro Vida, training the youth of Springfield, Massachusetts to be actors, writers and community activists in their own right.
Students are fortunate to have access to the theater of Anna Deavere Smith, and they deserve exposure to much more.