An evening centered around death and dying would not usually also be filled with laughter and joy, but then the Baylor College of Medicine Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy didn’t ask just anyone to headline their annual bioethics outreach event; they invited acclaimed playwright, author and film and television actress Anna Deavere Smith.
Though for decades, Smith has been that frequent television guest star who commands every scene on shows like Black-ish, Nurse Jackie and The West Wing, the Tony and Pulitzer nominee’s plays have won her just as much renown. For this special event, An Evening with Anna Deavere Smith, The Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy asked the actress/playwright to perform excerpts from her one-woman show Let Me Down Easy, and so to depict through drama that fundamental human need to live and die with dignity.
Each year the Baylor’s Center for Medical Ethics offers a public outreach program that uses entertainment and arts to raise awareness of different bioethical issues. This year’s focus on the resilience of the human spirit and quality of life issues during life-threatening circumstances might at first seem rather abstract, but when seen through the perspectives of Smith’s characters, all based on real people, those issues become moving drama that we all can comprehend and find connections with in our own lives.
As she has done with many of her previous plays, Smith spent years conducting hundreds of interviews, including in the Texas Medical Center, to get a better understanding of how humans deal with health, illness and death. She then wove those voices together to create Let Me Down Easy.
In the excerpts she performed for the sold-out event at the Wortham Center, Smith portrayed doctors, patients, the late movie critic Joel Siegal, Governor Ann Richards and Matthieu Ricard,a writer and Buddhist monk, all of whom she interviewed for the project. None of the people she depicted had one definitive answer to that eternal question of mortality but taken together they give hope and solace even as they continued to question and live, sometimes as they prepared to take that final step through death’s doorway.
The evening continued with a panel discussion moderated by Houston Public Media host Ernie Manouse, and consisting of Smith; Dr. Alicia Monroe, provost and senior vice president for academic and faculty affairs at Baylor College of Medicine, and Amy McGuire, director of the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Baylor College of Medicine. The final panelist, Dr. Eduardo Bruera, chair of department of Palliative Care and Rehabilitation Medicine at MD Anderson Cancer Center, was also one of the interviewees Smith had just portrayed in her play. Together, the panel members furthered the discussion on how we can live and die well.
For 400 members of the audience, that discussion continued over dinner in the Wortham Center Grand Foyer. With open-seating and a conversation facilitator at each table, guests of different ages and from diverse backgrounds pondered those questions of life, death and dignity that concerns us all and connects us together. With stories and ideas shared at the dinner table, the dialog about death amid life continued late into the evening and, likely for some, into the weeks ahead.