Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

What We Talk About When We Talk About Death

July 23, 2011

Anna Deavere Smith Photo: Joan Marcus

I graduated from Miami University in Ohio in the spring of 1990. Before I left, I was in the final seminar taught by Linda Singer, a philosopher, author, and for me, hugely influential intellectual force. (Her final work Erotic Welfare was published posthumously in 1993 after being edited by her friend and colleague Judith Butler.) Singer’s work on sexual theory and politics was informed by the traditions of post-structuralist/post-colonial theory and she could be a daunting figure on many levels. She did not tolerate fools easily and I can remember her bringing more than one philosophy graduate student to tears over A Thousand Plateaus. She heavily shaped my distaste for humanism and pluralism. My time as one of her students was also marked by the fact that she was dying. It was widely known she was being treated for cancer and throughout the many weeks the small seminar met, we watched her continue to physically deteriorate. She was a small woman to begin with and looked thin and grey by the end of the course. I recall seminars where she would drift off asleep in the middle of a forceful soliloquy on Foucault or Derrida. We students would look at each other with concern, but she would snap back to and carry on without missing a beat. Her illness was never spoken of. It seemed inappropriate and she never gave off any signals to indicate that she cared to discuss it with us, so it was left aside despite our knowing what was happening. Of the many things she said, one that I still carry to this day was a response to the consternation of a philosophy grad student who inquired in disbelief that there must be some things we have in common by simple fact of our humanity. Singer rejected this idea outright. “We share nothing,” she said, “except perhaps death. And even that we don’t experience in similar ways.”

She didn’t expound on this, but her words have haunted me. I still think of them as immensely brave. And I thought of them again last night while watching the powerful and ground-shaking Let Me Down Easy, the 2008 work from dramatist Anna Deavere Smith. The show is travelling the west coast and has arrived at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica this week. Let Me Down Easy is quintessential Smith, a single act consisting of her re-creations of verbatim dialog from a number of different people she interviewed as part of her research for the project. The names and subtitles of each vignette are projected above the stage on a screen, which is helpful for the sake of clarity. Ostensibly the show is about the American medical care system, but that isn’t really the case. It’s about death. And in particular, it’s about the way we think about death in the everyday sense. Her interviews with doctors, clergy, everyday people, and celebrities cover many topics, but they always come back to the kinds of death the great majority of us (at least in the West) will experience. This is not about being murdered, or dying in combat or a car accident. These are deaths from cancer, renal failure, and infectious disease - the kinds of things that lead people into the medical care system and eventually their own ends.

Let Me Down Easy is not all doom and gloom, however. It is very funny at several times. This is particularly true of the handful of celebrities Smith channels in the show including Lance Armstrong and Lauren Hutton. Her portrayal of the sharp wit of Ann Richards during cancer treatment is particularly hysterical. But in perhaps the most humanizing of ways, there is no escaping the uninvited guest in the room. Whether the subjects are cancer patients, their doctors, or people who have survived life-threatening illnesses, Let Me Down Easy always comes back around to what we all must come back around to. The last few monologues in the show are perhaps the most moving. One is from Smith’s own elderly aunt, Lorraine Coleman about the death of her own mother, and the other is from an interview from the recently deceased Rev. Peter J. Gomes. It’s impossible to watch this through anything but tears.

Smith’s recreations of these 20 some characters are flawless. She’s as amazing to watch now as she has ever been. As she moves through the show she takes and then abandons a variety of props to represent each one. Soon the stage is littered with coats, trays, and glasses like some party instantly abandoned by all the guests. But what I admire most about Smith isn’t simply her accents or the masterful physical mimicry of her subjects, it’s her keen eye as a curator. Smith is able to cull through hundreds of interviews to find material that works together in a beautiful and dramatic way. Some of these interchanges, like that of Hutton’s, on the surface seem banal and unengaged. There is no great anecdote here, but Smith sees the conversation in a much larger context and shows us the meaning in it by its relation to the other pieces around it. I can’t recommend the show (running through July 30) highly enough. Smith and her characters provide a powerfully moving case for what Linda Singer suspected might be true: the one thing we humans may have most in common is our certain, yet unknown end.

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What does "She heavily shaped my distaste for humanism and pluralism" mean? I'm not being sarcastic, just curious what "humanism" and "pluralism" mean within "post-structuralist/post-colonial theory"? In 25 words or less, of course.

As for Ann Deveare Smith, I saw one of her pieces long ago when she played on Broadway (I think it was the Rodney King thing), directed by George C. Woolf, and it was just all wrong: the East Coast audience, the heavy ironies, the ventriloquism which wasn't even as virtuosic as any Las Vegas celebrity impersonator.

Sounds like you enjoyed Santa Fe and I envy you.
To put it in the most straightforward of terms, humanism would refer to the ideal that their are some qualities or attributes that are essentially human - that all humans share certain things that unite them as a group vis-a-vis an "other".

Pluralism in this context would refer to the idea that multiple conflicting belief systems can exists simultaneously independent of a power dynamic and sharing an equivalent status. Or more plainly, that nothing is right or wrong and that everything is equal - a sort of moral relativism.
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