DOWNTOWN — In his legendary play “Hamlet,” William Shakespeare offered up some advice on acting: “Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue.”

In actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith’s one-person show, “Let Me Down Easy,” she single-handedly plays a host of characters, and taking Shakespeare’s advice, it’s all about the way she says it.

“What I’ve really been trying to do is become America, by putting myself in other people’s words,” Smith said. “I’m aspiring to say everything they did the way they say it. Some people believe that there’s a Hamlet in all of us, there’s an ax murderer in all of us. I don’t believe that, and that’s one reason why I developed the style of theater I did.”

“Let Me Down Easy” is an attempt to make a portrait of America using American voices. Over the course of the play, Smith channels some of the hundreds of people she interviewed gathering material for this production.

“Let Me Down Easy” is the latest in her On The Road series of plays, which includes “Fires in the Mirror” and “Twilight: Los Angeles,” in which Smith plays multiple characters, all based on interviews she has conducted, and each with a different and distinct theme.

“It was something I became interested in, how people speak and how their speech tells us about who they are and where they live and what really matters to them,” Smith said.

Smith allows each of these plays to evolve over time. “Let Me Down Easy” debuted in 2008, where it started as an exploration of the word “grace.” But before Smith brought the show to New York, controversy over health care reform started churning across the nation.

Using the initial topic of grace as a springboard, Smith turned the play into an exploration of health care reform from the American people’s point of view, both physically and emotionally. “It is about the vulnerability of each of us physically, and our physical power,” Smith said. “The result of doing that version allowed me to find the hopefulness that this play has.”

To prepare, Smith interviewed 320 people across three continents. Using tapes of the interviews, Smith worked with speech therapists and dancers to precisely duplicate the voices and actions of the interviewees, and re-create 20 different, unique people to illustrate the play’s theme.

Smith began her career in ensemble theatre, and acknowledges that the feel of a one-person show is very different. “You lack the community of other actors,” she said.

For Smith, creating the one-person shows is a very individualistic process. She conducts the interviews, and writes the play, by herself.

Acting the play out can also be physically challenging. “I am on the stage for an hour and 40 minutes without a break,” Smith said.

But for her, the rewards are worth it. “It is something that I created,” she says of the experience. “The study and the training for performance — it’s extremely gratifying.”

“Let Me Down Easy” will play at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica. A preview will run on July 20 and 21, and the official opening will be the 22nd. The play will run through July 31. For more information, contact the Broad Theater at (310) 434-3412.


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