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Theatre in Review: Twilight: Los Angles, 1992 (Signature Theatre)

Karl Kenzler, Elena Hurst, Wesley T. Jones, Tiffany Rachelle Stewart, Francis Jue. Photo: Joan Marcus

Anna Deavere Smith practices a highly specific kind of theatre as journalism that leaves one wondering: Will the impact of her plays, rooted in recent events, fade over time? And can they exist without her unique gifts as an actress? Signature Theatre has the answers, first with its excellent 2019 revival of Fires in the Mirror and now with this stunning new look at Smith's panoramic account of the Rodney King incident and how it shook Los Angeles to its core. As it happens, timeliness is not an issue, even without the link that the playwright provides to the killing of George Floyd. Moreover, the play retains its hypnotic power when performed by a cast of five. This version of Twilight: Los Angeles, 1922 is revised but the message remains the same: It's complicated.

One hears so much talk about intersectionality these days, but in Twilight Smith maps out a much more complex cartography of race. She begins with the case of Latasha Harlins, a Black teenager who, in 1991, is killed during an escalating confrontation with Soon Ja Du, owner of a Korean convenience store. (Ja Du is convicted but gets off with a suspended sentence, 400 hours of community service, and a $500 fine; you can imagine how this is greeted in the Black community.) Then comes the savage attack on King, a Black man stopped by the police for speeding; when the cops involved are acquitted, Los Angeles erupts in rioting. As whole neighborhoods burn, the media focuses on the attack, by four Black men, on Reginald Denny, a white truck driver. (He is saved by four Black onlookers who drive him to the hospital.)

American tribalism is a hot topic right now, but Smith, who conducted more than 300 interviews in researching this piece, identified the phenomenon decades ago. Her ability to draw out her subjects, combined with her unnervingly cool gaze, results in one revelation after another. Rudy Salas, a Latino sculptor says, "I'm not a racist! But I have white friends, though," a statement that would sound alarming coming from a white person talking about other races. But he also rightly worries about his son, a student at Stanford, who, driving home, is stopped, and menaced by an armed cop -- an all-too-typical example of racism posing as law enforcement. No wonder he asks in anguish, "How do you think a father feels?"

Denouncing as "a sellout" Charles Lloyd, the Black lawyer who helped Ja Du get a light sentence -- a charge Lloyd vigorously contests -- the Black community activist Gina Rae (aka Queen Malkah) adds, "Now, it might sound very racist on my part, and I really don't care at this point if it does...Those Koreans all look alike, little bitty short women, with little round faces and little short haircuts." Elaine Kim, a Korean-American academic, says, "I didn't think that African-Americans would share the American view that Koreans and Asians are foreign, and they that should go back to where they came from." Kim also describes the "buffer zone" that Asians occupy, a middle ground that renders them "decorative gatekeepers" in our striated society.

In Smith's account, everybody is assigned a role, a side, an allegiance, no matter what he or she really thinks. Josie Morales, a witness to the King incident, isn't called to testify because, as per the prosecutor, her account conflicts with the official police version. A juror who voted for acquittal of King's attackers says, "A lot of newspapers published our addresses. The New York Times published the value of our homes. We received threatening phone calls and letters." Most disturbing to him is the letter of commendation he receives from the Ku Klux Klan.

Indeed, when Smith is on the case, assumptions exist to be overthrown. Commenting on the riots, a white talent agent says, "It was so heartbreaking, seeing...the devastation that went on and people reduced to burning down their own neighborhoods." But Paul Parker, member of a defense committee for the LA Four (Denny's attackers), says, "First of all, we burned down these Koreans in this neighborhood. About ninety-eight percent of the stores that got burned down were Korean. The Koreans was like the Jews in the day. And we put them in check." Meanwhile, the clueless white real estate agent Elaine Young ("I used to be married to Gig Young") and her friends are holed up in the Polo Lounge at the "fortress"-like Beverly Hills Hotel, downing cocktails and hoping for better days.

It's an endlessly fascinating parade of personalities and viewpoints, adding up to a portrait of a society barricaded by class, race, and money. Several familiar names weigh in. Maxine Waters discusses the Kerner Commission report -- which, published in the 1960s, detailed the effects of institutional racism -- noting bitterly how little has changed. Charlton Heston admits, with self-satisfaction, to sharing his gun collection with left-wing friends rattled by the riots. Cornel West explains his concept of Blacks as "Saturday people," practicing a Christian eschatology that arrives at redemption later rather than sooner. (He also makes the fascinating side comment that Tolstoy is "much more nihilistic than Dostoevsky." I'd like some follow-up on that one.) And there are the private citizens with bizarre and/or tragic stories, including Elvira Evers, a pregnant cashier who gets caught in the crossfire and survives thanks to a bizarre twist of fate, and Walter Park, a Korean store owner who is effectively lobotomized by a bullet to his brain.

This polyphonic chorus of voice -- contradictory, wounded, angry, contemplative, and sometimes hopeful -- are complemented by David Bengali's projections, which include video footage of Harlins' killing, King's beating, the Denny attack (with onlookers coolly photographing his body in the street, as if it were a tourist attraction), and the riots. The images -- which fill the upstage wall on Riccardo Hernandez's sleek, spare set -- were greeted at the performance I attended sometimes in stunned silence and sometimes with murmurs of dismay. There here are also fine contributions from Linda Cho (costumes), Alan C. Edwards (lighting), and Darron L. West (sound).

Smith's pieces were written to be performed by her, but in Taibi Magar's enormously effective production, each member of the cast nimbly takes on multiple roles regardless of race or gender. Elena Hurst is memorable as spiky, plain-spoken Rudy Salas; Elaine Young, bragging about her 36 facelifts; and Hector Tobar, a former Los Angeles Times journalist who, speaking about the murder of George Floyd, notes, "When we talk about social upheavals, it takes a pandemic, and it takes cell phone videos." Francis Jue essays everyone from the LAPD weapons specialist Charles Duke to opera singer Jessye Norman. Wesley T. Jones takes on Charles Elliott and Charlton Heston as well as Paul Parker, who regards the prosecution of the LA Four with undisguised contempt. Karl Kenzler vividly etches portraits of that sorrowful juror and the former police commissioner Stanley K. Sheinbaum, who upsets the police ranks by daring to speak directly with gang members. Tiffany Rachelle Stewart creates highly individualized studies of the outraged Gena Rae and Angela King, Rodney's aunt, who reports that it took "three plastic surgeons just to get Rodney to look like Rodney again." The larger cast allows for a sequence titled "A Dinner Party That Never Happened," which includes restaurateur Alice Waters, politician Bill Bradley, and Elaine Brown, of the Black Panther Party.

More than any play I have seen in a very long time, Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 lays bare America as an interlocking network of authentic grievances, festering resentments, and cultural misunderstandings -- all packed into a social system where inequality is too often the norm. There's real drama in these clashing viewpoints; each person holds a piece of truth, but the bigger picture can only be revealed if all are shared. Two thoughts from this monumental work stick in the mind. The first is Maxine Waters' chilling assertion: "The fact of the matter is, whether we like it or not, riot is the voice of the unheard." The other is from Stanley Sheinbaum; confronted by angry cops wanting to know whose side he is on, he asks, "What do I have to be on a side?" It's an excellent question.--David Barbour

(2 November 2021)

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