This post is written by our new writer, Jill Podolsky, who will cover theatre reviews in the Bay Area.
I love Anna Deavere Smith. I loved her in “The American President” and in “West Wing” and I love her in “Nurse Jackie.” I have seen her speak twice and none of these hold a candle to seeing her perform in one of her plays. I was hoping that my overly high expectations wouldn’t ruin “Let Me Down Easy,” her show that’s currently playing at Berkeley Rep. They didn’t. From the moment I sat down and started reading the program, which had descriptions of the characters who would “star” in her show, I was engaged.
The set was like a very modern apartment with a white couch, a white table and 3 white chairs. The floor was a white-washed hardwood and there were 5 individual ceiling to floor mirrors in the back. At the top of the set there was a marquee-type sign that said, “The following portraits are based on verbatim excerpts from interviews conducted by Anna Deavere Smith.”
Her remarkable talent is taking interviews that she’s done with all kinds of people from governors to doctors to reverends to athletes to performers, famous and not, rich and poor and weaving their lives into a show that allows us to see how politics, healthcare, life lessons and death are experienced by different people from all parts of our communities. How she does this is by recording her interviews and literally becoming these people on stage. She is respectful and compassionate while showing the humor, seriousness, idiosyncrasies and sadness we face in our lives. She captures their words, their physical traits and, most importantly, their spirits in her performance.
From the moment she walked on stage, barefoot and wearing black slacks, a button-down white shirt and no jewelry, it was clear to me that the set and she herself were meant to be blank canvases that she was going to paint her portraits on. She began her story through Rev. James H. Cone, a reverend, author and teacher of Christian, black theology. In addition to his words, she put on a suit coat and sat in one of the chairs to represent him. As she seemlessly moved to her next character, she took off his suit coat and put it on the back of the chair. With each new person she became, she would put on a ring or a skirt, or sit on a pillow or eat fruit that represented each of them. And as she took each item off, she carefully laid it in a different part of the stage so that by the end, the stage was crowded with the fully realized portraits of each of these fascinating people. It was a live with color and warmth and feeling.
The mirrors were both reflecting and projecting. As she spoke we could see her from all the different angles, which gave me lots of different perspectives. Twice she used the mirrors as projectors. For example, when she was sharing Joel Siegel, movie critic and journalist who was diagnosed with colon cancer just before his son was born, she laid on the couch and had a camera focus on her face, which was then projected on the center mirror. It was very powerful and innovative.
The show is running through July 10 and then making a return engagement in August. It’s really worth a trip to Berkeley.