Of Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, at the Signature Theater.
Photo: Joan Marcus
It has become the season for putting “reality” on the stage. I want to say – weak laugh – there are very few on facebook / social / congress, amirite? For example, it is weird that not a but of them Documentary theater experiences have reached Broadway: Is it a room, with the text of an FBI recording, and Dana H., a performance synchronized on the lips to a conversation glued together. The use of texts from documents or interviews is not new, but it has suddenly and simultaneously become urgent. In the fall of 2021, these numerous artistic representations of What Actually Happened seem to want to teach us something. What is that?
To guide us in this reflection, no one is more important than the docudramatist Anna Deavere Smith. She started the ball rolling: her one-woman shows from the early 90s Lights in the mirror (about the Crown Heights riots) and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 (about the Los Angeles uprisings) were vital, popular, and culturally powerful. She interviewed dozens, if not hundreds, of people from all sides of the unrest, and then produced the resulting collage on her own. The work has elevated her beyond the usual categories: more human than a journalist, larger than an actor, more precise than a playwright. In 1997, she hosted the legendary debate August Wilson – Robert Brustein, the only public intellectual who could. Other works based on politically conscious interviews like The Laramie project and The exempt would come in the years to come, but when you think of the reality on stage you have to think of her first, a woman who recorded and then imitated many voices, an actress who used the solo show format to embody the multiple voices from American conflict zones.
So, the first thing you notice about Signature Theater’s excellent revival is Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 it is because Anna is not there. The reassembly shifts the fundamental equation of his practice: Smith no longer plays all the roles. She continues to create and perform other oral histories using her “channel” method – 2016 Field Notes saw her play with everyone from high school teachers to John Lewis – but revisiting the 1992s Fires (as Signature did in 2019) or 1993’s dusk called someone and something new. For Dusk, she wrote an updated screenplay, some of which explicitly link the LA crisis to our current crisis, and director Taibi Magar picked five actors to fill Smith’s one pair of shoes.
In many ways, the review is a relief. I still remember the shock of meeting Smith’s work for the first time – it was in college, and his shows shaped what I thought was possible in the advocacy theater. Now, I’m revisiting these ’90s pieces with my own students, and I notice a change in the way they are viewed both by students and by my own change of mind. When you watch them on old PBS videos, the Anna-at-the-center version still impresses with its virtuosity: Smith has a precise ear and a long interest in dialect and pronunciation, and the way they convey personality. His texts-collages never cease to inspire us with their pure information, their seriousness and their density; there is a moral thrill in the work that will never fade away. But in his solo work, Smith’s ability to “contain multitudes” must also be part of the story, forming his essential, albeit unspoken, humanist message. Even when his interviews reveal deep racial and cultural divisions, his interviewees somehow meet. in her, and the audience leaves with the feeling of having seen a path to reconciliation. I find it more difficult now to be comforted by this particular illusion. And also, my response to the theater of identity theft has changed. I couldn’t point to when this happened in the last three decades (almost), but Smith “does” the accented voice of a Korean-American trader now lands differently.
In the new version of dusk, the company engaged directly with this “differently”. There are now conventions on which actor speaks which lines: For the most part, black actors Wesley T. Jones and Tiffany Rachelle Stewart play the black interviewees, and other identities roughly align with the identities of the cast – Francis Jue plays Korean traders and scholar Elaine Kim, and gorgeous Elena Hurst is assigned to Anyone Latinx. It’s not rigid, and the production gets playful with its casting logic: at one point, Jue becomes Jessye Norman in a gorgeous taffeta cape, and white guy Karl Kenzler appears to be dressing up to play Charlton Heston, for being nudged out of the way by Jones. You could write a thesis on how the show negotiates these sensitive issues – there’s clearly a whole ethical ecology in place, built and nurtured by Smith, Magar, and the cast.
These choices actually help bring our attention back to the content, the attempt to explain what happened in Los Angeles during the terrible spring of 1992. Smith interviewed over 300 people, approaching them with a thousand questions. Why were Los Angeles police officers acquitted for assaulting motorist Rodney King when there was video of the beating? Why did a convenience store owner Soon Ja Du shoot 15-year-old Latasha Harlins? Who was the target of the resulting destruction? How do activists describe the uprising as a triumph or a failure? In an attempt to figure out the mare’s nest of racial anger and state violence, Smith spoke to the police chief who was too busy fundraising to attend the riots, Rodney King’s aunt, the lawyer of Soon Ja Du, a truck driver dragged out of his taxi and later rescued, jurors, reporters, passers-by, real estate agent, talent agent, titular peace negotiator Twilight Bey, Chief Alice Waters ( for some reason)… there seems to be no end to his list. Completeness and complexity are two aspects of all truth, and so describe dusk would take two and a half hours, exactly the time it takes to watch the show.
Time in dusk passes quickly because every second is coiled tight, tight, tight. Magar’s production slips under Riccardo Hernández’s billboard-sized screens, and even with new material, Smith’s script moves forward like a thriller. All five actors have standout moments, though it’s interesting how much they can resemble Smith herself, echoing her over-the-top, booming delivery. The screens above them are a source of terrible tension on stage, as they display the information and surveillance footage so frequently mentioned – including both the beating of the King and the murder of Harlins. Each time, the grainy video plays and the show stops. You might think that you have had the experience of staring at the invisible over the past 30 years, but nothing prepares you for seeing a child shot. I think these videos allude to the reason for our current passion for reality in theater. I don’t think it’s fair that we live in a mush of almost true fake news, adjacent to lying. I think it is that we need to do penance for our greatest common sin: our short attention span. Reality is reality wherever you find it, but the theater is too a place of forced silence, thought, duration and confrontation. Even if the thing on stage in front of you is unbearable, you can’t turn the page or refresh the thread. You’re stuck in there with the reality of what happened, and during the too brief period of production, you won’t be allowed to look away.
Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 is at the Signature Theater until November 14.