Playwright and actress Anna Deavere Smith sits on a bench outside a theater in Watts a few days after rehearsals started for a 30th-anniversary revival of her acclaimed play, “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992.”
It’s a fitting spot to meet and talk about a play set amid the Los Angeles riots that erupted after the acquittal of four Los Angeles Police Department officers charged in the 1991 videotaped beating of Black motorist Rodney King.
One of the 320 interviews Smith conducted with Los Angeles residents, gathering anecdotes and dialogue for the play, was done with the founder of the Watts Labor Community Action Committee where the theater is located. And the WLCAC center was among many places in Los Angeles that burned to the ground in the riots.
When “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992” premiered at the Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum in May 1993, it was a one-woman show, a bravura performance by Smith as she shifted from one real-life character to the next, the story of the riots unfolded from many different perspectives.
Now, Smith has revised the play for five actors in multiple roles, opening it up in new ways even as the original heartbreak of its inspirations – racism, injustice, police brutality, and income inequality among them – remains as freshly painful as yesterday’s news.
“I think the show is still, 30 years later, a very useful project for people of different races and different genders to come together,” Smith says, sitting next to Gregg T. Daniel, director of the new production that returns to the Mark Taper Forum from March 8 to April 9. “And to portray an issue that in America just will not go away.
“When Tyre Nichols was killed, I Immediately wrote to (Center Theatre Group’s) Tyrone Davis and to Gregg, and said, ‘Are you watching this?’” Smith says of the recent beating death of a young Black man in Memphis at the hands of police officers.
“One line: ‘Are you watching?’” Daniel says, shaking his head.
Smith continues, “And Tyrone wrote back: ‘It looks like your play just can’t become historical drama.’ In terms of this thing keeps happening again and again.”
Words and voices
Smith built her career as a playwright who interviewed real people, often around issues on which they could not agree, and then pieced their words together to bring the drama to life.
“I was said to have created a form of theater,” she says. “Of course, how do you know? Maybe somebody did it wherever. But I had been trying to find a way of working that would be with real people.”
Her breakthrough came in 1992 with “Fires in the Mirror,” a one-woman play at the Public Theater in New York City, which was based on the Crown Heights riot when Black and Jewish residents of that Brooklyn neighborhood clashed.
That play was set to open the day after the Los Angeles riots began, and though it was postponed, the shadow of the L.A. uprising hung over the success it found
“I performed that show with the audience having what happened in Los Angeles in their mind,” Smith says. “I mean, it was just an extraordinary thing that had happened here in America.”
Director Gordon Davidson, the late founding artistic director of the Center Theatre Group, flew from Los Angeles to New York City to see Smith perform.
“He was really enthralled with it,” Smith says of Davidson’s reaction to “Fires in the Mirror.” “It had reminded him of some things that he had produced earlier in his Taper days.”
Over breakfast at the Algonquin Hotel, Smith and Davidson agreed to work together on a play for the Mark Taper Forum.
“We kind of looked at each other,” Smith says. “I don’t know who said it first, but I agreed to come out here and write a play based on interviews in the wake of the riots.”
She arrived in September 1992, spending Mondays through Wednesdays at Stanford University, where she was coming up for tenure, then flying to Los Angeles to interview people the rest of the week.
With the backing of Davidson and the Center Theatre Group, doors opened quickly to Smith.
“They just said, ‘Well, who are some of the people you’d like to talk to?’” she says. “I mean, there are obvious people. Can we get to Rodney King? No, but maybe we can get to his aunt.”
The late attorney Johnnie Cochran, his client Reginald Denny, who was pulled from his truck and beaten as the riots kicked off, an anonymous juror from the Rodney King beating trial, actor Charlton Heston, and many, many ordinary residents of neighborhoods from South Los Angeles to Koreatown to Beverly Hills all soon joined her cast of characters.
All of it combined for a chorus of voices that reflected the vast diversity of the city.
“I felt that ‘Fires In The Mirror’ was like an aria,” Smith says. “And this was an opera.”.
Memories of the past
Daniel, who was born and raised in Brooklyn, lived in Koreatown when the L.A. riots broke out.
“I just remember going up on the roof of my girlfriend’s apartment, and looking around and seeing smoke, black smoke in all areas of the city,” he says. “It was people off the streets. Whispering, calling. It was quite a frightening time. This sense of instability, just a sort of, ‘My God, what’s going to happen now?’”
Daniel has worked extensively in Los Angeles theater, and both he and Smith say they felt it was important that this new production rely largely on Los Angeles theater veterans.
Four of the five actors in the cast, each of whom plays 10 or more characters, were also at the Watts theater to talk about their earliest memories of both “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992″ and the riots that inspired it.”
Lovensky Jean-Baptiste was a 10-year-old boy in Florida. A few years later, in high school, he chose a monologue from the play to perform in academic competitions.
“It’s crazy,” he says. “I was in a high school library and I really don’t know this play. I open it and it just speaks to me. And now it’s 30 years later and I’m doing the monologue in the play.”
Jeanne Sakata had just opened in Shakespeare’s “Richard II” at the Mark Taper Forum when the King beating trial verdicts were delivered. The production by director Robert Egan was crafted to address racial divisions in contemporary society: Richard II (Kelsey Grammer) and his court and cronies were White actors; Rival leader Bolingbroke and his rebels all were people of color.
“All of a sudden what we were doing was very immediate,” Sakata says. “Later, when we heard Anna was working on this piece, I thought, ‘Wow, this sounds revolutionary.’ She was taking this vast kaleidoscope of voices from Los Angeles, from all different walks of life, and she was going to put this on stage and perform that herself.”
Hugo Armstrong was a high school student in Santa Rosa in the spring of 1992. He remembers talking with school friends about the possibility that revolutionary change might be imminent.
“We were all looking at each other like, ‘Oh, this is it,’” he says. “Like, it’s finally happening. We assumed it was going to spread, and that wasn’t a bad thing. Finally, there was going to be a change.
“In retrospect that was a little naive,” he says. “As the details came out, you realized how complex a situation it was, and how much harm was done with the good.”
Like Jean-Baptiste, Lisa Reneé Pitts, a native New Yorker, watched the riots on television from across the continent.
“It was very traumatizing to think that, ‘Oh my goodness, look at what’s going on over there,’” she says. “But underneath that understanding of the times, of racism and the different trials that were going on, I was blessed to know about Anna Deavere Smith.
“I didn’t live too far from where she (set) her play, ‘Fire in the Mirror,’” Pitts says. “I knew who the incomparable Anna Deavere Smith was.”
Alchemy in the dark
In another person’s hands, the interviews Smith conducted might have been a book, an oral history like those done by journalist and author Studs Terkel, a hero to the young playwright, and eventually a friend.
But in the dark of a theater, a different kind of alchemy is made.
“It’s a very holy thing to me,” Armstrong says of his work as a theater actor. “In that empathy, in that humanity, is where I think human beings just shine. And it’s possible, you know, that with this piece, being together in that space and shining together like that, could only do good.”
The art of drama creates an emotional engagement between the words in the script spoken on stage and the audiences that come to the play with their own thoughts and memories, Smith says.
“I always think a lot about what the audience is bringing into the room,” she says. “]
In the dark, when it works, something happens, Smith says.
“After all these years, I don’t really understand it,” she says. “But it could be something somebody said. It could be the charisma of one or two of the actors. It could be the visuals that Gregg brings, or the sounds.
“But it’s meant to be an emotional experience and an intellectual experience and a civic experience,” Smith says. “To be conscious that you could be laughing at something and somebody else down the row is crying.”
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