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Actress-writer returns to New Haven with a drama about the resilience of the human body

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2008 - Spring


About eight years ago, Asghar Rastegar, M.D., deputy chair of internal medicine and professor of internal medicine (nephrology), was deeply influenced by someone he credits with making him a better doctor. That person isn’t an older, more seasoned clinician or a brilliant, innovative scientist, but an actress and writer—Anna Deavere Smith.

“She finds meaning in the most common response,” Rastegar said. “She hears things nobody else could.” While physicians typically bring the science of medicine to the healing process, Rastegar said, Smith’s compassionate portrayals shine the light on patients’ humanity.

In January, Smith opened her latest work, Let Me Down Easy, at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre. It is her second work with strong Yale connections.

Her first came about after Rastegar and Ralph I. Horwitz, M.D., FW ’77, then chair of the Department of Internal Medicine, saw one of Smith’s performances in 2000. They concluded that medical students and residents would become better doctors if they could observe the way she interacts with people to gather her material. They invited Smith to the medical school as a visiting professor, and after some dogged persuasion, she agreed. Arriving in the summer of 2000, Smith interviewed physicians, nurses, patients and their families. The result was Rounding It Out, a 90-minute exploration of the ways in which doctors and patients view and communicate with one another. Her work, which included portrayals of such faculty as Rastegar, Margaret J. Bia, M.D., FW ’78, professor of medicine, and Forrester A. Lee, M.D. ’79, HS ’83, assistant dean of multicultural affairs, was performed twice at the medical school to packed houses.

Since then, Smith has broadened and expanded Rounding It Out into a full-blown theatrical production with a broader focus on the resilience and fragility of the human body. That work—Let Me Down Easy—includes material from Rounding It Out and portrayals of survivors of the Rwandan genocide, cancer survivor Lance Armstrong, a supermodel, AIDS victims in South Africa and a New Orleans physician who assured her hospitalized patients after Hurricane Katrina that rescuers would come for them even as her own doubts increased.

Smith also portrayed one of Rastegar’s longtime patients. “I treated her for six years,” Rastegar said during a discussion after one of Smith’s performances. “What Anna got out of her in a few hours she had never shared with me.”

“I usually don’t like being interviewed, but I don’t remember her prompting or asking me anything,” said Lee, who also joined in that discussion. “That is her special talent. I totally enjoyed the experience.”

The recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship in 1996, Smith is credited with creating a new form of theater. She depicts a range of characters in her one-woman shows, using her subjects’ own words and minimal props to offer multiple points of view. Her plays have explored such issues as the racial tensions between blacks and Jews in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights in 1991 and the Los Angeles riots in the wake of the Rodney King police brutality trial in 1992. Smith’s exceptional ability to inhabit the people she is portraying once prompted The New York Times to call her “the ultimate impressionist: she does people’s souls.”

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