Onstage, the documentary qualities of Anna Deavere Smith’s solo performances — she interviews diverse personalities, then “cuts” between their edited comments, as channeled through her considerable gift for physical and vocal mimicry — can be compellingly virtuosic and provocative. But the camera’s closer scrutiny doesn’t flatter this unique theatrical reportage, and the digitally lensed translation of her much-toured 1993 “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992” (now titled sans date) further muddies impact by mixing docu, interview and other materials with the performance segs. Still potent at times, somewhat awkward results look best suited to educational and arts broadcasters. PBS airing is slated for later this year.
In “Twilight,” as in her previous “Fires in the Mirror,” Smith views a recent flash point of U.S. racial tensions through a kaleidoscope of voices. Her focus here is on the notorious “L.A. riots,” including the key incidents that led up to them — Rodney King’s video-recorded beating, the indicted police officers’ subsequent acquittal and the attack on trucker Reginald Denny. Putting in their two cents on these and related larger issues are a wide range of Angelenos, from ex-LAPD chief Darryl Gates (who insists unarmed black King’s relentless billy-clubbing by white officers had “nothing to do with race”) to community activists, media members, lawyers, assault victims, assailants and various highly opinionated “ordinary” citizens.
They add up to a bracing Tower of Babel chorus, repping nearly every possible ethnic, class, economic and power tier. But the intended balance of the piece is upset by the intimacy and theatrical air with which the oft-handheld camerawork imbues Smith’s costumed impersonations — up close, her shape-shifting occasionally tilts toward caricature, especially whenever the subject is privileged (e.g., BevHills real estate agent Elaine Young) or racially insensitive. Results render questionable the artistic process’s pretense toward journalistic objectivity.
That discomfort is exasperated by the decision to excerpt the infamous tape of King’s ’91 beating, along with other still-jarring TV news, security-camera and police footage. Interviews with participants, arty “chapter” titles and some inconsequential first-person sequences (“You think we need any more social change?” Smith asks a companion while driving around L.A.) further make this “Twilight” incarnation seem more mishmash than insightful mosaic.
Smith’s stage work already blurs the line between journalism and dramatic interpretation; those distinctions become problematic when filtered through yet another medium. Director Marc Levin (“Slam”) invests the filmed “Twilight” with energetic editorial rhythms, but he can’t make its many ill-fitting parts cohere into a viable whole. Variable tech aspects will play better on TV.