At the start of her one-woman show "Let me down easy," Anna Deveare Smith explains that we will be exploring grace and vulnerability, two fundamental human qualities. It quickly becomes apparent that she is letting us in easy. What she does make us look at for nearly two hours is the ancient paradox of how humans can create both great beauty and good and equally great evil.
ADS, who you might recall as Nancy, the National Security Advisor on The West Wing, eases us into this conundrum. But she doesn't let us down easy at all. To understand why, you first have to understand that this is not a typical one-person show, full of witty monologues. It is, in fact, a new genre, one that ADS herself explored some years ago, apparently, in her work on the Rodney King case.
If you're familiar with the term literary non-fiction, used to describe writing that is factually true but highly crafted and focused beyond the facts, then this is the theatrical equivalent. To call it docudrama doesn't do it justice; dramatic documentary, maybe.
What's amazing about this work is that ADS herself did years' worth of reporting, travelling to Rwandan refugee camps, South African AIDS orphanages, talking to religous leaders, doctors, and ordinary people, asking them about grace, forgiveness, dying, death, suffering, hatred and recording their answers on video.
She then wove their words together tightly, with very little narrative from her. She acts out their answers, making small changes of clothing, posture and props to individualize each "character." Occasionally, stills of the real people appear as a backdrop.
Her excellent acting abilities allow her to use accent, intonation, timing and all other theatrical devices to give life to each character and their words. Most of the people are not famous, so you will not laugh or wince at them because she captures the familiar for you. No, you will hear their words as they might have said them.
Why not just film them and make a documentary?
That would be valid, but something interesting happens as ADS morphs through the characters. For all their individual treatment, they become both a stream of human answers and questions and a series of individual people. Even ADS herself seems to change with the characters. I was fascinated to find that during her portrayals of several white people, for example, she became for me a white person, despite her medium-toned African-American complexion. To see her play the decidely Caucasian Anne Richards is not only humorous, but convincing. Ditto for a Harvard professor alone in her elaborate garden.
Having herself be the only character, the notion of common humanity, differentiated more by circumstance and context than any fundamental difference, was more starkly and believable trure.
As for the substance, she gives us no easy recipe. She refuses to sentimentalize genocide by focusing on those who sheltered the refugees or committed small acts of kindness. She choose to talk about forgiveness instead; it is in forgiveness, here characters suggest, that the victim finally acknowledge that they might have committed equally despicable acts given the chance.
Her tools seem to be the mirror -- hold it up to yourself -- and the shovel -- if you're in a hole, start digging. She leans toward the existential -- we make our own meaning -- even in her views on grace. Perhaps most telling is that some (if not the) of last words of the play are from a woman who cares for doomed children at a South African AIDS orphanage: "Just don't let them die alone in the dark."
ADS has no final answers for us, but maybe some places to start.
The quality of her reporting was topnotch. If this was a Frontline documentary, it would win an Emmy, for what that's worth. It's a sad commentary on the state of reporting in general that a single actor can accomplish more on some of the big issues of our time than the mainstream broadcast media.
Will this genre take off? It's an interesting way to present and comment on complex issues and deserves to be used more. Kudos to ADS for one of the most powerful and compelling two hours I've spent in a theater in a while.