Anna Deavere Smith astoundingly captures multiple true-life personalities in a genre she has mastered: documentary theater. In “Twilight: Los Angeles 1992,” Smith dives into the problems that ignited Los Angeles in April 1992 by portraying individuals who participated in those events. Despite the media saturation of the riots and their aftermath, one leaves this show knowing more.
Smith interviewed people, and, with a bank of dramaturgs, edited down the transcripts; she performs the interviewees using their words verbatim and in their personal style, with the overall effect aided by juxtaposition, music, lighting and video excerpts.
The performance begins with Rudy Salas Sr., an Hispanic sculptor and painter. He relates how, growing up in Southern California, his white teachers subtly slighted all minorities, and how a beating he took by police just after World War II has left him forever embittered toward the establishment.
Such bitterness toward a particular group is echoed by others, such as lumber salesman Julio Menjivar, activist Allen Cooper, medical student Chris Oh, and Mothers Reclaiming Our Children founder Theresa Allison. One vivid act of repression is like a boulder cast into a pond; its waves can extend and linger for a lifetime.
Former police chief Daryl Gates comes across more humanly than some people may want to see, as a man whose weakness is his inability to see himself or his actions in context. He wants to know if he is “suddenly the symbol of police oppression.”
Smith approaches caricature in a couple of impersonations. Former police commission prexy Stanley K. Sheinbaum’s New York accent and an anecdote of a hammer make him at first cartoonish, though his take on Daryl Gates shows him as quite astute.
An anonymous talent agent talks about the tension that was “palpable and tangible” at an exclusive restaurant during the riots. But he, too, becomes real as he details the “yuppies fleeing.”
Overall, however, Deavere’s delivery is sensitive and often touching. A Korean-American former liquor store owner, for instance, empathizes with the progress made by many blacks, but feels it’s often been at the expense of other minorities.
An anonymous juror in the Simi Valley trial feels like a pawn of the system, having been led to the verdict, then disdained by the judge and news media, hounded by hundreds of citizens, and approved — to his horror — by the KKK.
Impressively, Smith gives one portrayal speaking entirely in Korean and another in Spanish, their translations being projected.
In many ways, the performance extends the themes Smith explored most recently in her play “Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities,” where she contrasted the experiences of Jews and African-Americans during a riot and its aftermath in New York.
In that piece, it was clear both sides felt betrayed by the police and justice systems, and the two groups’ differences would forever keep them apart.
Here, that’s echoed in multiple groupings: Korean-Americans vs. African-Americans; African-Americans vs. whites; Mexican-Americans vs. whites; rich vs. poor; police vs. City Council, etc.
While “Fires in the Mirror,” which aired recently on PBS, left one feeling as if cultures in America were as divided as in Yugoslavia, “Twilight” offers hints of optimism. This especially comes through in the monologues of Reginald Denny, whose outlook is forgiving and almost childlike, and Maria, a juror in the Federal trial of the officers held in the Rodney King beating.
Several of the scenes have humor, thanks to the interviewees’ asides. This ability to laugh at certain absurdities, too, offers hope.
The only figure prominently missing is Rodney King, but his aunt, Angela King , shows Rodney as a special human being.
The effective set design by Robert Brill and lighting by Allen Lee Hughes allow Smith to seamlessly change settings. Candice Donnelly’s costume design permits Smith to quickly change characters, a delicate pleasure to watch.
Jon Stolzberg’s multimedia design, with video footage of the riots, encapsulates what people remember of the riots: the chaos, the anger, the looting and the fire.
Music composed by Lucia Hwong reinforces the tension and oppression one begins to feel. Jon Gottlieb’s sound design often provides effective background sounds.