With “Twilight: Los Angeles,1992,” Anna Deavere Smith confirms her status as a premiere force in American theater. “Twilight” is lightning striking twice, a brilliant follow-up to Smith’s acclaimed “Fires in the Mirror.”
Any fear that the accoutrements of success — big theater, bigger production values — might interfere with the disarming intimacy of Smith’s earlier performances is quashed the moment she takes the stage. Dressed in her trademark black slacks and white blouse, the barefoot Smith snares her audience with the same fervor that surely must win over her interviewees. From the start of this incredible sojourn to its lovely finish, Smith presents recent history with an immediacy that virtually defines the word irresistible.
Despite the video projections and glide-on settings — additions that actually enhance the production — Smith’s approach remains unchanged from “Fires”: Assuming the identities of nearly 50 actual personages, among them the famous, infamous and anonymous, she tells the story of the L.A. riots prompted by the brutal police beating of Rodney King. As she did with “Fires,” which detailed New York’s Crown Heights riot of 1990, Smith interviewed scores of witnesses, participants and those otherwise affected, and speaks their words, verbatim, as she slides from one “character” to another.
Smith isn’t exactly a mimic, yet she has a truly profound talent for capturing the essence of a personality not merely through words, but through cadences, tones, pauses. Taken as an historical account of a seminal event, “Twilight” is valuable; as a symphony of voices echoing a maddeningly complex society at the end of this century, it is invaluable.
Perhaps Smith’s greatest accomplishment, both here and in her other shows, is the even-handed yet stern compassion she shows her subjects. Humanity is found in the vilest of villains, and hate is explained, if not forgiven. Smith’s work provides no answers, easy or otherwise, but achieves something almost as elusive: “Twilight” gives absolutely equitable and eloquent voice to the myriad communities touched by the riots — black, white, Asian- and Mexican-American — and to individuals who otherwise would go uncounted.
Even as an editor, Smith excels. One can only surmise the mountains of audiotape she whittled down to this aural sculpture. Note the way she juxtaposes beaten motorist Reginald Denny’s wish for a “happy room” to hold the well-wishing letters he received with the comments by Paul Parker, a supporter of Denny’s assailants, about a room he hopes could serve as a “No Justice, No Peace” museum.
And Smith doesn’t wink at her audience, instead allowing a subject’s own words to speak, and those words speak volumes. Former Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates hangs himself with his lame excuse for being late to the riots, and the well-spoken self-defense of Officer Theodore Briseno, though twice acquitted , can’t cover the hideousness of his actions.
There are simply too many standout characters to list, from opera diva Jessye Norman to Rodney King’s aunt, Angela King. But one segment of the play could nearly be described as a microcosm of the entire work: As Maria, a plain-spoken black woman serving as a juror in the second trial of the police officers, Smith provides perhaps the most telling glimpse into the jury deliberations that we have yet seen, or may ever see. Hysterically funny and ultimately moving, this set piece is entitled “A.A. Meeting” because of the confessional tone in which the jurors traumatically unload their own bigotry as they get down to the business of justice.
Projections identify each of the characters and the titles their monologues are given. In a few cases, when Smith speaks in the Korean or Spanish languages of her characters, the projections provide translation. Director George C. Wolfe and his creative team have devised video projections that include the necessary and still appalling tapes of the King and Denny beatings. Riot footage is accompanied by John Gromada’s “sound score” of the all-too-realistic noise of anarchy.
John Arnone’s set, typically top-notch, features a few well-placed sticks of furniture and the backdrop video screen that opens and closes, aperture-style, to take on a variety of shapes. None of which is permitted to upstage Smith, if that were even within the realm of possibility.
Play moves to Broadway’s Cort Theater for a limited run next month, a welcome transfer, indeed. “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992” is a rare thing: the work of an artist at the top of her game, impossible goals impossibly reached.