*If you’ve never seen Anna Deavere Smith perform one of her one-woman plays, PBS is giving you the chance to see her latest production, “Let Me Down Easy,” in its entirety.
Airing Friday (Jan. 13) at 9 p.m. as part of its Great Performances series, “Let Me Down Easy” has the Baltimore-born actress, playwright, teacher, and author exploring matters of the human body, the healthcare system and the resilience of the spirit. She plays 19 distinct characters crafted from interviews she has personally conducted with real people around the world– from the famous (such as Lauren Hutton, Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong and “Vagina Monologues” creator Eve Ensler) to regular folk like Ruth Katz, who was a cancer patient at Yale, New Haven Hospital, or a cowboy bull rider from Shoshone, Idaho named Brent Williams, who is more than a little fed up with America’s health care system.
“I would say that these 19 people all have something in common,” Smith told the Television Critics Association (TCA) last week. “One thing is that they’re each very extraordinary expressers, so that if you look carefully at how they sound, what they are saying, and how they move, there’s extraordinary choreography and singing in each one of them. And they each are saying something, helping me understand something that I didn’t understand when I started the process and I’m still struggling to understand.
“So every time — and I’ve played this play six months in New York, other productions before that, nine months on the road — every time they are opening a door for a sort of further understanding for me about some very beautiful things and then some hard things.”
Smith performed four of the 19 characters for TV reporters at the TCA press tour, and managed to do what very few actors can pull off in a room full of jaded journalists: make us fawn.
“Anna, we’re not really supposed to gush, but I really must,” began one TCA member. After mentioning her superior work in “American President” and “Nurse Jackie” – and considering her career overflowing with Artist-in-Residence and professor positions, honorary degrees, board memberships and books she’s written – the journalist asked her, “How is it possible to be you?”
Smith said her work is rooted in two facets: people and ideas. “That’s a drug that I take, people and ideas. And so I’m just blessed that I get to share them.”
In the audio below, listen to a portion of her performance of Kiersta Kurtz Burke, a young, white doctor who was working in one of the public hospitals in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit. Burke is one of the 19 characters in “Let Me Down Easy,” premiering Friday at 9 p.m. on PBS.