Annie Loui in Los Angeles
28 March 2023
Anna Deavere Smith’s iconic play about the LA riots of 1992 has a new life in this assured production.
Lisa Reneé Pitts (foreground).
Photo credit: Craig Schwartz.
Originally written and performed as a bravura one-woman show, Twilight presents a series of monologues around the Rodney King beating, trial, and subsequent riots which tore Los Angeles apart in 1992. The text is based on Deavere Smith’s interviews of Los Angelinos responding to the question: “What happened”? But now the fast-paced and well sequenced interviews are embodied by five very good LA actors, and vitally staged by Greg Daniels.
We experience the complexities of multi-ethnic, multi-racial LA around the riots. We hear from Rodney King’s aunt, we hear from a Korean liquor store owner who has been robbed and who retaliates at gunpoint, we hear from a defiant chief of police, Daryl Gates, a weeping juror, a UCLA anthropologist, a pregnant woman caught in cross-fire, LA Times reporter Héctor Tobar, black activist Paul Parker, and opera singer Jesse Norman.
There are first-hand accounts of the riots or the beatings from multiple perspectives, and we are presented with theory about embedded racial animosity between Korean and Black communities, and embedded antagonism around law enforcement, notably the theme of law enforcement feeling abandoned. A policeman reveals “This city has abused both sides.” The anthropologist tells us that “the goal of the immigrant is to achieve whiteness – in whiteness the pain of history is erased.”
But mostly we hear people trying to figure it out and trying to live their lives. The audience audibly followed the emotional rollercoaster ride of each story. “What happened?” Humanness and unexpected humour are behind each distinctive voice. There is a hilarious turn by three different actors playing a Beverly Hills real estate agent who flees during the riots to the fortress of the Polo Club in the Beverly Hills Hotel for safety but also for gossip! Interspersed with the monologues, there is video from eyewitnesses, television news excerpts, and projection of cityscapes burning in a montage corresponding to the various voices we are hearing. All of this is projected on the massive columns of Efren Delgadillo Jr’s evocative set of 1960s futuristic civic buildings. We are supplied with a context for the dysfunction.
Thirty years later the irony is not lost: once again the brutal beating of a black man by police has engendered public protests of massive emotion and scale. The questions remain much the same. But there is a difference in the way Twilight now lands on the audience. I remember being amazed by the construction of the work and the versatility of the performer when I first saw the play 30 years ago. Now, the style is familiar territory, oft-used and less surprising. But the embodiment by the diverse cast was moving and responses from the equally diverse audience were noticeable. They stayed around afterwards to discuss the show in small groups on the rainy theatre plaza. It felt like a real community event performed by Angelinos for Angelinos who seem to be more open to examining who and where we are now. I left feeling impacted and energized by the debates. The play was moving and much greater in impact than the sum of its parts.
Encouragingly, I left with hope that something is changing both in the demographic of the theatre audience and in the politicized world in which we live.