Anna Deavere Smith’s New Journalism

Culled from 320 interviews over a series of years, Anna Deavere Smith unusual performance piece “Let Me Down Easy” concerns 19 people’s reaction to their health care.

Some are dying, some are talking of others dying. All are very expressive, and all taken on by Smith in the piece, which makes its public television debut tonight on “Great Performances” (PBS, 9 p.m., check local listings).

It all began with an invitation from the Yale School of Medicine to interview patients, something that she couldn’t immediately get to. But once she did, she told a session at the TV Critics winter press tour last week, the stories came tumbling out.

“I asked one question of those interviewees at Yale,” Smith says. “Just one: What happened to you?

“That’s all I had to say. Long stories, taking off their clothes, showing me their scars,” she says. “What I’m really looking for, in fact, are projects where I only have to ask one question and then people begin to display themselves verbally. I call it singing. And now that I can study video, really dancing in these beautiful, beautifully aesthetic true ways. I’m a student of expression.”

She did several different versions of the play, including one that concentrated on Rwanda after the genocide.

“Thank God the American theater at the time that I wrote this play could still afford to support workshops –environments where you just make a mess. A fantastic artistic director, Gordon Edelstein, at the Long Warf Theater just invited me to come up there and make a mess.

“I surround myself with very smart people, and I let them yell at me and I go home and write a new play every night for a long, long time, and then finally it whittles itself down.

“Ultimately, I would say that these 19 people all have something in common. One thing is that they’re each very extraordinary expressers, so that if you look at carefully 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,” Smith says. Every time she’s performed “Let Me Down Easy” “they are opening a door for a sort of further understanding for me about some very beautiful things and then some hard things.”

It’s different than the usual writing of a play, she says. “I am certainly an editor. I am stringing together fragments and making a story or a journey for you.

“And then, too,” she adds, “isn’t it interesting how that word ‘playwright’ is spelled? It’s not w-r-i-t-e. It’s w-r-i-g-h-t like a wheelwright. If you look that up, it’s someone who makes wheels. And so, in that regard, I think a playwright is someone who makes a play.”

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