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Posted at 1:00 AM ET, 02/ 1/2011

Anna Deavere Smith and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius talk health care and booze

By The Reliable Source

Anna Deavere Smith chats with HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, 2011. (HHS photo by Chris Smith)

Here's something to make your lunch break a little more interesting: a performance by Anna Deavere Smith in the lobby of your office building.

Standing on a makeshift stage at the Independence Avenue headquarters of the Department of Health and Human Services on Monday afternoon, the acclaimed actress/playwright performed excerpts of her one-woman show, "Let Me Down Easy," for about 200 employees and health experts (including Surgeon General Regina Benjamin), followed by a brief discussion on health care with Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

"To say that the debate in this country has been volatile may be an understatement," said Sebelius.

"I think it's volatile everywhere," responded Smith.

Which makes it a perfect subject for the 60-year-old actress -- A-list provocateur, MacArthur "genius grant" recipient, professor and activist -- who's taking her look at health care (based on 300 interviews from doctors, patients and workers on three continents) beyond the confines of the theater. Plenty of VIPs (Sebelius, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, Attorney General Eric Holder, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan) have been to Arena Stage to see her perform, but Smith is also reaching into the community -- to HHS, National Institutes of Health, meetings with Hill staffers and policy experts -- to drum up even more debate on the hot-button issue.

After Smith's 30-minute performance and a standing ovation from the crowd, Sebelius played talk-show host to Smith, asking her to share the origins of the play, what she learned putting it together and the reactions in different parts of the country.

"You have the best questions," Smith praised her.

"No answers," quipped Sebelius dryly. "Lots of questions."

There was, Smith told her, one interesting difference between New York and D.C. audiences over a doctor's line about people who cope with tough issues using alcohol.

"New Yorkers didn't think that was funny," observed Smith. "In Washington, they think that's very funny. Do you all drink more?" The audience broke out in laughter.

"More than what?" asked Sebelius with a grin. "You would too, if you lived in Washington."

By The Reliable Source  | February 1, 2011; 1:00 AM ET
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