Actor, Playwright & Educator, Anna Deavere Smith Took a Journey for Her Craft—Then Brought Her Experiences to Life
by Dann Dulin
She pantomimes holding a child who is dying from AIDS. Six months earlier, this child had lost his parents to AIDS. She comforts him in a soothing voice, explaining, “This germ in your body is making you very sick.”
Anna Deavere Smith passionately utters these tender words portraying the real-life Trudy Howe, who is director of Chance Orphanage in South Africa, in the one-woman show, Let Me Down Easy. Trudy Howe is just one of twenty characters that Anna immerses herself in, in this particular play. To prep for it, Anna spent ten years interviewing more than 300 people on three continents for this project. This is her unique style: accumulating hundreds of hours of recorded material through her interviews, choosing her characters, intensely studying them, and finally bringing them to life in a compelling theatre piece—a docu-play, if you will. Besides Trudy Howe, other people she embodies in Let Me Down Easy, which was recorded for PBS’s Great Performances series, include supermodel Lauren Hutton, cyclist Lance Armstrong, and former Texas governor Ann Richards.
Anna’s research for this project took her to war-ravaged Rwanda, Uganda, and later to South Africa. “This play is about the vulnerability of the human body and the fact that we are all mortal in the American healthcare system,” she elaborates, sitting next to me in the green room of a Los Angeles theatre. “In those places I was looking in particular at how these countries dealt differently with AIDS. At the time, Mbeki, the South African leader, was still being called an ‘AIDS denier.’ He was denying where AIDS came from. In one of the remote areas of Rwanda I visited, it was like a ghost town. I mean we saw…,” she stops and appends—“I wish I had the photographs to show you! Standing on the hill we saw fresh grave after fresh grave after fresh grave. We spoke with a preacher there who was burying fifteen people every weekend and he was never able to say what they died of.”
In Uganda, in 2005, she witnessed the government’s handling of the AIDS epidemic in a comparatively more effective manner than in Rwanda. At one point she was consumed with talking to traditional healers in a forest who were receiving Western medicine through a project funded by the Ford Foundation. “These healers were pretty phenomenal to watch, but nonetheless it wasn’t helping to fight AIDS,” she notes. “The communities couldn’t disregard the traditional healers because of the power they held within the communities. This project attempted to get these healers to see the ‘light’ so they would announce to their community that their traditional healing was not enough.”
Along with her translator, Anna drove for hours to interview a man in a sugar cane field. “He had huge, huge boils all over his face. He was quite weak, quite ill, and probably close to death. I talked also to his younger girlfriend who was taking care of him. Afterwards, while we were in the van driving back, the translator talked about how he would love to hit on that girl. We were amazed! First of all, she was probably sick, but he didn’t seem to care.”
Next, Anna met with the president of the student body of a major university in the Ugandan capital. They had a program there called “ABC’s”—abstain, be faithful, and, if you can’t abstain, use condoms. The student body president spoke about how during his freshman year people were abiding by this campaign, but by the third year they weren’t.
“He was also a little blasé about it too,” she admits, adding, “I don’t know, but I feel funny telling you about this. When I experienced his attitude, I thought I would hate to have this in the American press. The American press wouldn’t be able to fully understand,” she pauses then proceeds to pronounce each word as if teaching a child how to read, “what…this…kid…was…trying…to…tell…us…about…the…culture…he…comes…from.” She pauses again, swiftly crossing her legs. “So it really struck me what kind of work had to be done; the kind of awareness that had to be raised. We’ve been more successful [with campaigns] here [in America]. In my estimation reeaaal working campaigns started happening here in the nineties. So probably in less than twenty years we’ve been able to make a lot of adjustments about how we think about AIDS.”
In South Africa she met with young people and learned about several campaigns that were geared toward youth. “There was a sentiment that was hard for me to understand. Someone told me, ‘We have to get to the young women. In America you do a much better job with young women. They can really provide some leadership here in South Africa because they can tell the boys, ‘no.’ And I’m like, ‘Why are you giving up on the boys??! Why do you assume you can’t teach the boys to have respect for their whole culture?’ I spoke to one young girl who had good grades in school, and these guys were following her home one day, teasing with, ‘You think you’re so smart. We’re going to rape you.’ And when she told her family, it was very hard to get them to take her seriously.” Anna looks off for a moment. “So I think the gender politics in other nations are hard to tackle.”
While in South Africa, Anna spoke with John Samuel, former CEO of The Nelson Mandela Foundation, who was then principal of The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls. “He spoke about the pandemic and how [in America] it exponentially began to move once it was in the heterosexual community,” relates the Baltimore native and twice Tony-nominated actor. “In Africa, AIDS is bigger in the heterosexual community, but I think we in America still think of it as a gay disease. Whereas as in Africa, Thabo Mbeki’s problem wasn’t that it was gay people, it was about sex! That’s the taboo, that there’s a disease that’s killing people where procreation meets death.”
Anna eases back into the drab brown non-descript sofa in this little room. She’s dressed in a pink shirt, tight decorated denims, loafers, and her hair is in a casual flip. Though she refused to shake hands (“Under doctor’s orders”) upon our introduction and insisted on no pictures, the Obie award winner and Pulitzer Prize finalist looked dashing, though indifferent. Until the interview began, she was cold and distant. Could Gloria Akalitus, the indomitable, no-nonsense character she plays on Nurse Jackie be one and the same? But once Anna commenced talking about her discoveries in her work, she was energized and engaged, with the same level of commitment she brings to Anna Deavere Smith Works, a non-profit organization that empowers artists and thinkers to participate in public discourse and encourages vulnerable communities to dramatize their stories and employ the theatre arts in various ways in order to become agents of change. She has won much recognition for her work as an artist and thinker, including arts awards and a MacArthur grant, among many other honors. Most recently she was awarded the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize for her contributions to art and the world.
Anna first encountered AIDS in the late seventies. She befriended Lamont, a fellow student at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre (ACT), and cast him in The Cuban Thing, a play she directed. When he died a couple of years later he was only in his late twenties. “I remember meeting his mother for the first time after he had died. She traveled around meeting all his friends who were important to him. He seemed indomitable in many ways,” she asserts, contemplating. “He was very attractive and seemed to have everything going for him.”
In The Cuban Thing there were several gay characters but Anna just thought Lamont was going down to Folsom Street, a district known for gay bars and bathhouses, to do research. “I didn’t know Lamont was gay,” she says. “One of the other teachers at the school was worried about him. This was the time right before Diane Feinstein closed the bathhouses down,” she recalls, taking a breath then adds, “The guys in my school were so promiscuous.”
The loss of Lamont and many other friends inspired Anna to write about these untimely deaths. In 1990, she did another docu-play, From The Outside Looking In, based again on numerous interviews. This time she played the part of a PWA. “There were doctors still standing then who had been through this from the very beginning and I really felt the war-weariness of what they had been through,” she expresses of her encounter with several physicians. “[I interviewed] this one really beautiful man, a designer, who for years had done the extraordinary windows at Gumps. I had met him once when he was less symptomatic, but by the time I interviewed him again, his dementia had really taken off and that was just really heartbreaking to…,” she halts, folds her hands laying them in her lap, and suddenly a glow beams across her face, “…beeeauutiful man physically, and a beautiful person, too. Obviously gifted. That was very, very sad….” In the play, Anna portrayed the Gumps window designer in his state of dementia.
Anna believes in producing such projects as a powerful way to reach people and educate them about HIV. “It gets people to talking and that’s what we need to do,” she insists firmly. She ought to know. She was in the AIDS-fueled film Philadelphia with Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, and in Life Support she costarred with Queen Latifah [A&U, February 2007]. It was the true story of Andrea Williams who contracted HIV through IV drug use, then overcame her addiction and became an AIDS activist.
Anna’s concern is that people are not listening and so they take serious risks. “I think there’s a lot being done [now about HIV prevention]; however, I hear that since HIV drugs are available it makes people think they can take more chances. You know, the fear factor is gone, which is so full of sh…,”—she doesn’t say the word fully. “We have so much access to science that there needs to be a vaccine, you know, an inoculation that everybody gets when they’re born. How far away are we from that? Pretty far.” The discussion loops back to fear. “I think people still think HIV/AIDS is a disease for marginal people: gay people, drug abusers, black people, poor people, and prostitutes. And people who are not in those minorities probably don’t want to come forward and say, ‘I’m positive.’ They don’t want to do it because it’s not a good image. You’re not going to find out that a Wall Street executive is HIV-positive. So we have to applaud people who have come forward and have been willing to put their brand on the line, if not their lives on the line, to stand up for this disease.”
When asked who she thinks has stood up during the epidemic and will go down in history for their contribution to the AIDS community, Anna instantly mentions playwright Tony Kushner [A&U, June 2012]. “I don’t know how far Tony’s reach is outside the theatre but he did a lot to change how we think. Indeed, young people now perform his plays in schools. I also think Zackie Achmat [head of the Treatment Action Campaign in South Africa] is very important in the epidemic. What this activist was trying to do as a colored man in South Africa….” Anna also cites a dentist she met in the Ugandan forest who was practicing Western medicine along with the community’s traditional healers. “I’m also proud that Al Sharpton has stepped forward. I’m proud that Annie Lennox [A&U, December 2007] stepped forward. When they step forward, it’s fantastic!” She smiles.
“I think it’s great when people use their platform to better others. However, it shouldn’t all come from the President or the government. I think there are many things a President can’t say and there needs to be leadership outside of his sphere,” she advises. “Put resources into finding a counterculture leader who brings to poor people and people of color a sense of dignity about their lives, so that they can see their own participation in how they live their lives with each other.”
Anna believes this leader needs to be progressive and radical, broadcasting to the populace such charged and stirring words as, “Your life has value. Only
you must be the one to respect yourself and the community around you because if you don’t, we’re going to be killed off. We need to have a sense of pride: ‘I am not going to be killed by this disease. I am personally going to be active.’” Anna seems to be donning another hat she may wear for a future theatre piece.
“The leadership needs to bring a sense of value and dignity to people. Empowering them.” She pauses. “That was a very important part of the civil rights movement. It wasn’t just Martin Luther King but the progressive people who would never have been invited to the White House—ever, ever, ever, ever, ever—but these people had access to their communities and could turn people on to the value of their lives.”
There’s a BIG THUUUD-THUUD-THUNG! outside the room. We both halt. No words are exchanged between us. Anna then continues as if there’s been no interruption. “It’s even possible that racism in the gay community hindered the reach [of HIV prevention] to the people of color. And then on the other side, homophobia in the black and colored communities could have prevented earlier intervention. The extraordinary collaboration of AIDS activists, their effectiveness and imagination, could have permeated these very communities early on,” she emphasizes with fervency.
With that, there’s a knock on the door. A lanky imposing woman opens the door notifying Anna of her next appointment. She positions herself between Anna and the door, posed in a stern Secret Service stance, waiting. Anna rises, stops, and says, “Let me know if you need anything else. I’m sorry that I can’t…[spend more time].” She continues to exit then turns back to me, her mind still on the previous subject. “Change agents inside the community. I know that they’re there but it needs to be bigger. There needs to be a revolution,” she persists, gently, with toughness, “just like the days when the gay community really took off. That was a form of revolution!”
Thank you to Debbie Reece for her assistance.
Dann Dulin is Senior Editor of A&U. He interviewed Tricia Helfer for the December 2012 cover story.