Anna Deavere Smith takes stage tonight with a revolution in Austin theatre. LET ME DOWN EASY is about “the power and vulnerability of the human body and the resilience of the human spirit,” she said. With most every theater community in the country welcoming her to their stage to develop LET ME DOWN EASY, she chose Austin, and, specifically, ZACH Theatre — where she first encountered many of the characters she portrays in the production.
But her journey developing this play began 8 years ago at Yale University, where she was a visiting professor. Yale Medical School sought to develop a more sophisticated relationship between its doctors and patients, so Ms. Smith embarked on a long process to explore doctor-patient relationships, with a different concern than physicians. Ultimately, she said, this was about teaching professionals — already adept at their craft — to listen.
“We’re lucky if we get 15 minutes with doctors,” she told ZACH. “Understandably, doctors are often too busy to listen, and patients often don’t know how to communicate their illness.”
As this momentous project takes stage tonight, after 8 incredible years of development, we thought it would be a good idea to look back to where it started, an article with Ms. Smith from Spring 2001’s issue of Yale Medicine, partially re-published here with permission:
A dramatic turn
The doctor-patient relationship takes center stage in performer Anna Deavere Smith’s interpretation of medicine at Yale.
Story by Cathy Shufro
Photographs by Michael Marsland
The playwright and actress Anna Deavere Smith stands in the well of Fitkin Amphitheater musing about how patients and doctors manage to communicate under pressure when she slips on a white coat and transforms herself into Yale physician Asghar Rastegar, M.D. “I have looked at every single patient as being a phenomenal new experience,” says Smith, using Rastegar’s words and his Farsi accent. “Excited to walk in that room. Oh yeah, oh yeah, no question about it. Phenomenally excited. Every time, every time, every time.”
Moments later, Smith portrays another doctor, Forrester A. Lee Jr., M.D. ’79, HS ’83, a cardiologist and the school’s assistant dean for multicultural affairs, who calmly and deliberately describes how medical training itself can block vital avenues of communication. “When you’re listening to a patient tell you things that you have to integrate into a whole body of knowledge you have, it’s hard to listen well, because your mind is trying to filter out what they’re saying. And consider alternate diagnoses and so forth. So you’re really not listening; you’re trying to solve the puzzle … and so it just sort of goes by you that they said something very, very important. You didn’t hear it.”
Sitting down in a chair, Smith becomes a patient, speaking with a trace of a Southern accent. She is Frankie Harris, a woman with HIV who has been treated at Yale.
“I didn’t trust anyone. Doctors wasn’t listening. I had to fight, I had to advocate for myself to get doctors to listen to me. I had to learn to say, ‘What’s the side effects of this?’ Learn to say ‘No, I’m not takin’ that, give it to someone else, let someone else try it first.’ … I am very conscious and very responsible for other people’s health when it comes to my virus. And I says [to the doctor] ‘Look, before you examine me put some gloves on. I have the virus.’ She went out of the room and she never came back. She never came back.”
The physicians who crowded into Fitkin for medical grand rounds in mid-November had not come to hear a colleague discussing a disease but rather to watch an outsider make a case for the potential richness of doctor-patient communication. Playwright and actress Anna Deavere Smith used the words of physicians and patients from the Yale community to create Rounding It Out, a 90-minute examination of how doctors and patients view one another.