Theater review: Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992

There are at least three startling moments in Signature Theater’s revised production of this 29-year-old play that each in a different way bolsters my conviction that Anna Deavere Smith is one of America’s greatest living theater artists, and “Twilight 1992: Los Angeles 1992” one of her signature achievements

 As a slide in the beginning tells us,  Smith interviewed 320 people connected in some way to the “civil unrest” that occurred in the aftermath of the 1992 acquittal of the police officers  caught on videotape beating a Black man named Rodney King, Five actors now portray the 40 real-life “characters” whom Smith selected for the play, all of whom she herself portrayed in earlier productions, precisely voicing the verbatim transcripts, imitating every gesture, every verbal tic of each individual.

Near the end of the new production, Smith has added a new monologue from Hector Tobar, a former journalist for the Los Angeles Times, whom she initially interviewed three decades ago and went back to interview again about three months ago. Portrayed by cast member Elena Hurst, Tobar talks about “a story of two videos,” noting  the connection between Daniella Frazier’s cellphone video of George Floyd’s killing and George Holliday’s video recorder video of Rodney King’s beating; Holiday was “trying out his video camera for the first time” which resulted in “this window into centuries of American history for the first time recorded, shared in the mass media.” Holliday might have stumbled onto and into history; with her play, Smith captured a way to dramatize it – and understand it. 

If it’s startling how similar the two tales, and how persistent the problem of police brutality against African Americans, Tobar does see a difference: “Where I live
we have white suburbanites you know painting
graffiti on their own driveways that black lives matter,” he says laughing.”I never thought I’d see that in my lifetime.”

Near the beginning of the production, Smith also adds a character who was not in the earlier productions (or at least, not in the published script): Ted Briseno, one of the defendants accused of beating Rodney King. “The thing that hurt me the most was that, I wanted my children to look up to me….as a hero,” says cast member Karl Kenzler, portraying the former cop. That was important because he never had a hero growing up – his own father died when he was eight. He remembers how impressed he was with his older brother’s military uniform. And in this short monologue, the show achieves the impossible – allowing us to sympathize with the man. At the same time, it also prompts some of us to speculate that he might not have had the best reasons for going into law enforcement. 

It needs be said here — left unmentioned in the show — that Briseno, though a defendant ( twice acquitted) was the only defendant who expressed the belief that the other officers used excessive force against King. He was so adamant in his criticism even in private conversations before the video came to light, and in testimony afterward, that the supervising sergeant at King’s arrest called him “Benedict Briseno.” Still, his inclusion in “Twilight” is an example of what makes Smith’s work so extraordinary. Her approach is what enables her as well to present Reginald Denny (again Kenzler), a white trucker who was dragged from his truck and beaten during the riot, then saved by four (Black) people who saw on TV what happened to him; and then follow that up with Paul Parker (Wesley T. Jones) speaking resentfully about how much attention Denny got for being beaten, and defending the men accused of doing so.

There is an echo of Smith’s own nonjudgmental dramatization in another character that Kenzler portrays in the play, Stanley K. Sheinbaum, former president of the Los Angeles Police Commission, whose conversation with gang members enraged some cops. He tried to explain  to the officers: “’This is a shot I had, at talking to these  curious people, about whom I know nothing! And I wanna learn.’…I knew I hadn’t won when they said,
‘So which side are you on’  When I said, I said, it’s …my answer was ‘Why do I have to be on a side?’ Yu, yuh, yuh know, ‘Why do I have to be on a side? There’s a problem here!’”

A third moment that startled me was the monologue by the opera singer Jessye Norman. What she says is fascinating – such as the importance of singing in the civil rights movement – but that was not the startling part. It was her portrayal by Francis Jue, an actor I have long admired (most recently in Cambodian Rock Band) – here in such convincing opera diva regalia that I didn’t recognize for quite a while that this statuesque Black woman was being portrayed by this slight Asian-American man.

One of the advantages of performing “Twilight” with a cast of five rather than as a solo show, is that it allows each performer time to effect a more complete costume change. It also underscores one of Smith’s important insights, which she implies in a note in the program, has grown with time —  that the conflict was not binary, not just black versus white, but involved the many communities that make up Los Angeles; the cast reflects that diversity.

“Twilight” operates on the central insight that the riots were not the most important story – not even the main drama. They were unquestionably traumatic; as one slide informs us, the six days of rioting led to 63 deaths, 2,383 injuries and over 12,000 arrests. 

 But the riots were symptoms of ongoing tensions – before, during, and afterward (and now.) The mission of the play is to dig up those tensions, show them side by side. She’s aided in doing so by director Taibi Magar and the protean cast.

My enthusiasm for Smith’s work, and for this production, doesn’t extend to every single moment of the 150-minute (minus 15-minute intermission) running time. I could probably have lived without all five actors reciting Cornell West’s remarks at such length (as intelligent as he is), and I wasn’t as fully engaged as I should have been in the scene labeled “the dinner party that never happened” (as clever as it is) which presented such disparate figures sitting around a table as Alice Waters, the chef of Chez Panisse (portrayed by Hurst), Elaine Brown,  former  head of the Black Panther Party (Tiffany Rachelle Stewart), former Senator Bill Bradley (Kenzler), the Rev Tom Choi (Jue) and Parker again (Jones)

Perhaps I was spoiled by the very smart decision of Signature to run a digital preview of the show this past summer that was just  35 minutes long but got to many of the central issues with just six of the characters.

Signature was planning this 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 killed by police.

Twilight: Los Angeles 1992
Conceived, written and revised by Anna Deavere Smith
Directed by Taibi Magar
Signature Theater through November 14, 2021
Tickets: $35-$70
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission.
Scenic Design by Riccardo Hernandez
Costume Design by Linda Cho
Lighting Designer by Alan C. Edwards
Sound Design by Darron L West
Projection Designer David Bengali
Movement Coach Michael Leon Thomas
Dialect Coach Dawn-Elin Fraser
Sensitivity Specialist Ann James
Production Stage Manager Charles M. Turner
Cast:Elena Hurst, Francis Jue ,Wesley T. Jones ,Karl Kenzler 
Tiffany Rachelle Stewart

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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