A New Medium for Healthcare Reform: Anna Deavere Smith Uses Austin Theatre to Heal Doctor-Patient Interactions
The strength and resilience of the human spirit and body underlies Anna Deavere Smith’s production of LET ME DOWN EASY.
This weekend, she opened the play to sold out crowds and received two curtain calls at every performance. You could tell the play resonated with the audiences as dozens of theatre goers lingered in the lobby to talk about Ms. Smith’s performance — and some unexpected, topical themes that she tackles — for hours after the play ended.
Many patrons were surprised to see that her documentary-style theatrical performance of diverse characters like Lance Armstrong, Ann Richards, Eve Ensler and Joel Siegel were focused on a debate at the forefront of modern politics: healthcare.
The healthcare debate is center stage in LET ME DOWN EASY. In fact, Ms. Smith initially began work on the show at the behest of Yale University Medical School eight years ago, and several of the 29 vibrant characters she features are directly involved in the medical profession — as physicians or academics in that field.
But all of the characters’ lives are centered around the overarching role that health plays as they traverse life. Take Ann Richards, one of the audience favorites, for example. When Ms. Smith assumes Gov. Richards boisterous persona, Richards is quick to note that she thinks that the healthcare team assigned to her must’ve been custom picked: “One thing I’m sure of is that there are no Republicans on my team.” As Gov. Richards learned a new terse reply, “I can’t talk right now, you’re using up my chi,” she iterates how her struggle with cancer stripped her of her hand-shaking trademark personality around which she built her life in politics. Her declining health turned her life upside down, and, in an odd way, tried to take away her identity before it took her life.
Carrington Marzette, a teenage leukemia patient from Midland, Texas, is one of the most poignant characters from the show. She attended the opening night performance at ZACH Theatre on Saturday, and audience members who met her were impressed by Ms. Smith’s ability to convey her exact essence. Ms. Smith told ZACH Theatre she was impressed by the strength of this 16-year-old girl, who tells us matter-of-factly about how she shouldered the responsibility of dealing with doctors and her treatment during her 16th birthday. The audience was spellbound as Carrington bravely and humbly watched the show.
Washington Post sports writer Sally Jenkins is also featured in LET ME DOWN EASY. She makes an interesting point: How does telling athletes that performance enhancing drugs are dangerous really deter them? A Gold Medal Olympic downhill skier, among the most daring of all professional athletes, builds his or her career on taking risks.
All-in-all, each of the vibrant 29 characters featured in this 90-minute production are out-of-the-box luminaries on the healthcare debate, intentionally or not, and the selection, placement and overall composition of LET ME DOWN EASY is the exact kind of genius that insiders in Washington just can’t seem to grasp. This is a theatre experience like no other, humorous and touching, political and apolitical, moving, poignant and centered around the joy and resilience of the human spirit and body. Don’t miss it.
For tickets, call (512) 476-0541, x1. $15 student rush tickets are available at the box office one hour before all shows, with a student ID.