Anna Deavere Smith has something new to say about the 1992 riots
A revival of ‘Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992’ bridges the past to recent police-related murders of Black men
Anna Deavere Smith’s play Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 has been performed numerous times since its premiere in 1993. Back in the early ’90s, Smith conducted 320 interviews with residents of Los Angeles who had been part of or had witnessed the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Smith then performed the play herself as a one-person show, where she portrayed numerous real-life people onstage. Smith took the show to Broadway in 1994, where it was nominated for two Tony Awards, and filmed it for the Great Performances series on PBS.
You would think that she would be finished with the play. But a new production is currently running off-Broadway at Signature Theatre in New York City through Nov. 21. Smith has added new material to connect the 1992 riots to the death of George Floyd and to today’s racial conversations. And through it, she wants to ask the audience — of different ages, backgrounds and classes — a central question: “How shall we gather?”
“I think it’s very hard for people who are working in these communities, and are in a minority, to deal with feelings about not belonging, about not being respected, about not being heard,” Smith said in a phone conversation. “So I think that, in addition to the big story of police brutality, this question of how we will gather is really alive right now. And so I hope that people leave, thinking for themselves new ways that they can approach this reality of: We’re going to have to negotiate the space in ways that make us uncomfortable, and that some old hierarchies are going to crumble.”
This question of how people who are different from each other can occupy one space is the central story of Twilight: Los Angeles, and arguably America.
The 1992 riots were instigated by multiple things: when four police officers beat the unarmed Rodney King, and when Korean store owner Soon Ja Du shot a Black girl, 15-year-old Latasha Harlins. Those events highlighted the racial tension and class divides in Los Angeles. Revisiting Twilight: Los Angeles after last summer, Smith saw multiple parallels between the 1992 riots, the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, and the Stop Asian Hate campaign and its ensuing conversations about Black and Asian solidarity.
For one, the beating of King was the first time that a video of police brutality was recorded and then widely shared in mass media. From that footage, says Smith, has come other public displays of police brutality and deaths of Black men and women caught on video, such as “Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown,” Smith said. “And then it builds and builds and builds, until the outrage becomes, in the case of George Floyd, international.”
So for this new version of Twilight: Los Angeles, Smith has put in new material linking the video of King to the video of Floyd. Says journalist Héctor Tobar, who covered the riots for the Los Angeles Times (he’s played onstage by Elena Hurst), “We have a story of two videos: one that awakens the consciousness of an age-old problem! And this outrage which has lingered and smoldered … in the communities of people of color for decades since that Rodney King video.”
Smith has also put in material that she left on the cutting-room floor before, but feels prescient now: the voices of Korean Americans, and the questions the Asian American community has about its position in America, especially within a culture that still positions race as a Black and white dichotomy.
For this production, Smith wanted to “make sure that the Asian American story was very present,” she said. “[People] want to situate everything in Black and white. So to have something that’s less known destabilizes the viewer.”
The interviews for the first production of Twilight: Los Angeles included King’s aunt, Angela King; Reginald Denny, who had been assaulted during the riots; Los Angeles police Chief Daryl Gates; and jurors in the trials of the officers who beat King. Smith tried to get to King but was unable to. Smith conducted the interviews over the span of eight months, beginning in fall 1992. “The buildings were still charred,” recalled Smith. “And so the palpableness of the war was still alive.”
What sets Smith’s plays apart from other plays based on a true story is their documentary nature. Smith’s work is a collage in structure; they feature different monologues and perspectives edited together, verbatim as they were told to Smith. Through the voices of these different individuals, a comprehensive picture of a historical event, while it doesn’t claim to be the definitive truth, presents the truths of the people inside of it.
Smith doesn’t shy away from presenting opposing viewpoints. She interviewed both Denny and one of the men who attacked him, Henry Keith Watson. Both men are presented in the play but Smith doesn’t take sides.
“I’m not a moralist, I’m not a judge,” she said. “I understand that it’s a different reality and a different circumstance than mine. But I’m very interested in it.”
That’s partially why Smith usually performed her own pieces. She has been acclaimed as a skilled mimic, being able to take on the voices, speech patterns and intonations of whoever she interviewed. By adjusting her posture, body language and voice, Smith is able to become a whole new person. Watching her perform is almost like watching an act of possession, where Smith the documentarian disappears and the person whose words we are hearing remains.
To Smith, performing is a way for her to humanize the different people in the narrative, even if they have a viewpoint she personally disagrees with. “I’m playing all those parts in defiance of this othering that had happened to me as a girl growing up in a segregated city,” Smith said. She grew up in Baltimore in the ’50s and ’60s. “I decided, well, I don’t like that it puts me in this position of having to objectify and make less-than-human the many people around me, so that isn’t what I want to do.”
But Smith is not performing in this new version of Twilight: Los Angeles. Instead, the story is now told through five actors, which to Smith highlights the differences between the characters. “I think it makes the race dynamics more chiseled,” she said. “Because in fact, even though you want to say, ‘Well, I don’t see color,’ we do all see color. And we especially see the color of people we don’t know.”
And in the story of Twilight: Los Angeles, there are no easy villains and victims. A Korean woman may have killed Harlins, but the riots also led to the destruction of Korean businesses, owned by people who were poor immigrants and also marginalized. Those questions, about what solidarity between communities of different races looks like, reverberate to this day.
Smith doesn’t have an answer for how to heal those wounds, and she doesn’t pretend to. Having a conversation with her leads not so much to definitive answers, but to more trains of thoughts, more words to ponder. Twilight: Los Angeles doesn’t have the answer either. “It’s still a text about incredible divisions and fractures and fragments,” she said. “It isn’t saying that we’re all the same. We’re not. My work is about discord and difference. It’s not about sameness.”
Instead, what Smith wants to leave the audience with are questions: “What are we going to do, given the fact that we have this difficulty? What’s the most humane way to be?”
Because to Smith, even though there are parallels between 1992 and 2021, there is a key difference that disturbs her. “It’s much worse now that we are not in any kind of question whatsoever,” she said. “We are not in the question. We are in camps of people fighting for truths, wanting to hold a single truth. And it’s just not what it is. It’s just not going to ever be that way. I think America has always been in a state of an argument.”
To Smith, asking questions and listening are how she has reached understanding and found her way of bridging differences. This is why these days when Smith is teaching (she is a professor at New York University), she tries to tell her students to be comfortable with not knowing: “Competence is overrated. Give doubt a try.”
That is why Smith named her play Twilight. It’s named after activist Twilight Bey, who was one of the organizers of the Watts gang truce. Bey is played onstage by Wesley T. Jones and in the play, he talks about living in that metaphorical in-between space between bright light and complete darkness.
Smith has adopted Bey’s words into artistic tentpoles for herself. “I believe that doubt is a place to live,” she said. “To me, that lack of surety, the gray area — as Twilight says, that ‘limbo’ area: it’s very beautiful … I named my play Twilight because I’m interested in that which is not broad daylight, that which is not completely clear.”