Reporting from New York — Anna Deavere Smith made her name in the 1990s with plays that looked at America when, in her words, "things were already upside down."
Her latest work, "Let Me Down Easy," came after years of purposely avoiding hot-button, sociopolitical topics that had become her metier with "Fires in the Mirror" and "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992," two seminal works from the '90s that looked at urban unrest.
Sitting in a Manhattan bakery last week, the actress and author ruminated over the decade it took to write "Let Me Down Easy."
"I've been busy," she says, "but in terms of my theater work, I had no desire to do anything else. And a lot happened in the last 10 years, stuff that people might think would be my kind of stuff: Bush-Kerry, the first black president, Sept. 11, the war . . . but nothing grabbed me like this did."
"This" is the subject of "Let Me Down Easy": the human body. The genesis of the play was an invitation to Yale University's medical school in 1997.
"They had this visiting professorship, and they wanted me to come to New Haven and interview doctors and patients -- and then to present a performance at medical grand rounds . . . like a lecture series for doctors -- which is a pretty serious event."
"It really took me a couple of years before I decided I would do it," she said. By 2000, Smith began interviewing doctors and patients.
At first it seemed like a change of pace -- more a meditation on broader themes than a continuation of her unique blend of theater and journalism that had earned her two Tony Award nominations, made her a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in drama and won her a MacArthur "genius" grant.
Smith found the people who would become her characters in "Let Me Down Easy" a particularly compelling group.
"The main thing I want to get a person to do in an interview is what I call 'sing': to begin to perform in their own personal language," Smith said. "People who are sick, or who have been sick, or have come close to death have a lot to say -- and they want you to hear it. So it was a very rich area for me."
Early in the decade she performed bits of "Let Me Down Easy" but never felt it was quite ready. She continued teaching at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts and had a recurring role in the NBC drama "The West Wing." (She is currently one of the stars of Showtime's "Nurse Jackie.")
Finally, after conducting more than 300 interviews with healthcare professionals, patients, athletes, healers in Africa, doctors who treat soldiers, Smith decided "Let Me Down Easy" was ready to be staged.
Which just happened to coincide with the beginning of the great healthcare debate that continues to this day.
Smith insists "Let Me Down Easy" is not about that debate, "death panels" or the "public option." She says it's "about desire. It's about loss. It's about the sadness that we are in fact mortal. . . . It's theater -- and theater is about communicating those big feelings."
But she was aware last summer that many of the themes in "Let Me Down Easy" were becoming as topical as racial tension and police brutality were in the spring of 1993, when "everything was upside down in L.A." and "Twilight" opened at the Mark Taper Forum a year after the Rodney G. King beating verdict led to rioting and at least 53 deaths.
"When it was clear, as I was on my way to New York, that healthcare was going to be a 'live discussion,' I was able to focus the play in such a way," she recalls. "It was serendipitous."
Between the out-of-town run in New Haven, Conn., in January 2009 and the work's off-Broadway premiere at the Second Stage Theatre last fall, Smith interviewed some of the key participants in the healthcare debate: people who attended town hall meetings with President Obama in Montana, tea party members in Colorado, Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, brother of White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who was accused by Sarah Palin of sponsoring "death panels."
But none of these people made it into the final version of "Let Me Down Easy."
"I realized the metabolism of my play was already set. I had the material for a full play just about the debate -- and it would be a very interesting show -- but it would be a very different show than the one I set out to make."
Smith will perform excerpts of the work tonight at the UCLA School of Public Health's Lester Breslow Distinguished Lecture and Dinner at the Beverly Hilton.
Last month, she did a similar performance for the California Endowment's Center for Healthy Communities. But there is no plan for a regular run at a Los Angeles area theater.
Seventeen years after the success of "Twilight" at the Taper, Los Angeles has not seen a new Smith play since a brief "work in progress" about the Clinton administration in 1999.
Asked if she wants to perform a fully staged run of "Let Me Down Easy" in L.A., she says, "I would love to," adding that Los Angeles is where her first produced play, "Piano," was seen, at the former Los Angeles Theater Center in 1990.
Smith seems genuinely perplexed when asked why the Center Theatre Group or other Southern California theaters haven't invited her back -- given the mostly positive reviews "Let Me Down Easy" received in New York -- but she answers smoothly and with a laugh. "Don't worry, my people are talking to people."
Besides the UCLA performance, Smith will work on "Nurse Jackie," in which she plays administrator Gloria Akalitus, while in L.A.
As an actor playing a healthcare professional on TV and the playwright of "Let Me Down Easy," Smith keeps her eye on the negotiations for a healthcare bill.
Her diagnosis: "Too many words."
Could the tensions of the healthcare debate lead to the kind of civil unrest she explored before? Smith answers calmly, if ominously, "Everything isn't upside down . . . yet."