Twilight: Los Angeles 1992. Anna Deavere Smith’s Startling, Timely Documentary Theater 30 Years Later

It’s just 35 minutes long, and available only until Sunday, but the free online excerpt from Signature’s forthcoming new production of “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992” is startling, in several ways, some of them new.

It’s been three decades since L.A. police were videotaped beating a black man named Rodney King, which after the cops’ acquittals sparked the L.A. riots.  Anna Deavere Smith explored this explosion of long-standing tensions shortly afterward in her solo documentary play, for which she interviewed some 300 people, selecting a cross-section to portray — embody — in a much-acclaimed performance.

Signature was planning a reimagined production of Smith’s play last year, as it had earlier in the season revisited her “Fires in the Mirror,” about the Crown Heights riot, but the pandemic shut it down. The new production would have opened two weeks before George Floyd was murdered by police.

Instead, the live, in-person production, directed by Taibi Magar, has been rescheduled for the Fall, with a cast of five portraying the characters that Smith originally all performed by herself. 

The video excerpt chooses monologues from six of the characters, performed by the actors from their homes. It begins with Congresswoman Maxine Waters (portrayed by Tiffany Rachelle Stewart) complaining that the problems that the Kerner Commission report detailed  20 years earlier – “institutional racism, lack of services…”—“still exists today.” This is all the more bracing  because that “today” was thirty years ago, and Waters could (and does) make much the same speech today.

Waters’ monologue sharply contrasts with the one that follows, by one Elaine Young (Carmen Zilles), who talks about how she spent the riot in the Beverly Hills Hotel, and she wasn’t alone — a monologue that in its frivolity and defensiveness one could almost see as comic relief, although one of the great strengths of Smith’s work is that she presents all personalities and opinions without judgment.

We next hear from Reginald Denny (Karl Kenzler), a white trucker who was dragged from his truck and beaten during the riot, then saved by four people who saw on TV what happened to him — all his attackers, and his saviors (and most of his doctors), were Black. He talks hesitantly, as if still reeling from his injuries, but tries to be positive. Immediately afterward,  Paul Parker (Wesley T. Jones) speaks resentfully about how much attention Denny got for being beaten, and defends the men accused of doing so. He also argues that most of the people beaten were Korean store owners and implies that they deserved it. Then Mrs. Young Soon-Han (Esther Chae) talking resentfully about being victimized. These last wo monologues are brutal, raw — and, because of that, enlightening.  The excerpt concludes with all five performers taking turns reciting the insights from scholar Cornell West.

Having different actors portray these characters makes the event less of a theatrical tour de force and turns it more literal, especially when presented in a video. That’s neither better or worse, just different. But Signature’s choice to offer this digital “preview” is definitely better. It not only whets one’s appetite for the fuller in-person production; it suggests one way companies can continue to use digital theater past the pandemic. This is a harbinger, I hope, of the many new approaches that could come out of the experimenting of the past year. 

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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