Anna Deavere Smith, a champion of the everyman, Black rights, and justice, is one of the most prolific playwrights of our time. A force to be reckoned with, she has revised her stunning play, “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,” from a one-woman play that she performed in the past, to its current incarnation as a five-actor play, being shown at the Signature Theatre and incorporating the murder of George Floyd into the scenario.
Smith’s continuity in detail, strength, and using actual interviews with people after the Los Angeles riots of 1992 in her revised version to bring the play into current times, is vividly evident and incredible. Smith is a different type of writer: she painstakingly conducted 320 interviews with people and chose ethnically diverse, economically diverse and strongly opinionated people to share their views about how the police beating of Rodney King—which was video-taped and went viral, after which the police officers involved were found not guilty and the resulting riots sparked fear, destruction and looting throughout L.A.—affected so many individuals in very different ways.
Throughout this two-and-a-half hour production, Smith takes the audience on a journey that includes brutally, candid video of the Rodney King beating, video of rioters breaking into and robbing businesses, and video of businesses burning. When King was viciously attacked by those police officers and it was seen by the world, it set off a reaction of violence, destruction and frustration. Black people who were already marginalized felt completely ignored, disrespected and abused. When the officers were found not guilty, that was a slap in the face for Black people. It is astounding how Smith was able to piece together a variety of interviews with people, from real estate agents to Hollywood talent agents, to one of the officers accused of beating King, to Asian merchants whose businesses were destroyed, an Asian professor, Black community activists—Gina Rae, Elaine Brown, and Paul Parker, a Hispanic sculptor, the Black man that attacked Reginald Denny—a white truck driver, politicians, police commissioner, college students; the chief of the L.A. Police Department; teenage looters; the Los Angeles Times editor; Black scholars; celebrities; a store cashier, a pastor, gang leaders and the jurors in the trail against the police officers who violated King’s civil rights.
As an audience we sat there stunned, upset, angry at the images we were witnessing against this defenseless Black man. We sat there shocked as we watched the video of store owner Soon Ja Du murdering Black teenager Latasha Harlins as she tried to leave the store after arguing and assaulting Du. Du had to pay a $500 fine for killing this teenager, when her funeral cost thousands.
What you realize during this play is that people’s ethnic and cultural backgrounds matter a great deal with how they relate to or avoid dealing with their fellow man. People come together with innate prejudices and fears that can result in blind reactions, which endanger others. Smith allows you to see the issues from everyone’s point of view. She lets you realize that nothing is black or white, but that life is filled with grays.
It is so sad that the racism and brutality that King faced in 1992 has been elevated in 2020 with the videotaping of the murder of George Floyd. It is disappointing that society has not realized the error of its ways. But it is encouraging that the death of Floyd sparked a reckoning in this country, added to by the coronavirus pandemic and the unbalanced impact it has had on the Black community. The death of Floyd served as an awakening of a spirit, of demanding better for our people in every venue, whether it be business, theater, community or healthcare.
“Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992” can easily boast five of the most versatile, honed actors you will see on a stage. The non-traditional casting has run amuck in a great way, as women play men and men play women and do it all completely believably. The actors, who take the audience on a rollercoaster ride of emotions, include Elena Hurst, Francis Jue, Wesley T. Jones, Karl Kenzler and Tiffany Rachelle Stewart. Through these superb actors’ performances, you experience the trauma, the flippancy, the anger, the frustration and the devastation that the King beating and its aftermath caused for a community that was forced to look inward and deal with its fears, hates, prejudices and insecurities. A community where the violence caused everyone concern from the rich to the poor. Suddenly and for a time it seemed that nothing was off-limits. People may not have agreed on what happened, but Smith allows the audience to realize the perspectives people took. There are more than 70 monologues performed by this cast, which go by seamlessly under the flawless direction of Taibi Magar, each accompanied by a subject.
This revise of “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992” is revolutionary!
“Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,” appropriately named one of the best plays of the last twenty-five years by The New York Times, will only play through Nov. 14 at the Pershing Square Signature Center in the Irene Diamond Stage, at 420 W. 42nd Street. Visit www.signaturetheatre.org for more info.