Anna Deavere Smith Criticism - Essay

Anna Deavere Smith with Steve Proffitt (interview date 11 July 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: An interview in Los Angeles Times, July 11, 1993, p. M3.

[In the interview below, Smith discusses the effects of the 1992 race riots on Los Angeles and her reasons for writing Twilight.]

One critic calls her the most exciting individual in current American theater. Another complains her work is emotionally unengaging and analytically shallow. She's been praised as a keen social observer of Los Angeles and condemned as an outsider who has exploited the city in tragedy. Whatever their opinions people are talking about Anna Deavere Smith and her one woman show, Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. Her performance about the violence following the verdict in the Rodney G King-beating trial completes a five-week run at the Mark Taper next Sunday.

Smith, 42, sprang to prominence last year, with another one-woman show about a racial clash, Fires in the Mirror. Shortly after the verdict in the first King beating trial, the Taper's artistic director, Gordon Davidson saw her New York Public Theater production about the conflict between Orthodox Jews and African-Americans in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. He invited Smith to come to Los Angeles and mount a similar effort. Twilight is the result of some 175 interviews Smith conducted over a nine-month period with Angelenos whose lives were directly or indirectly touched by the riots.

Smith presents 26 characters—Koreans, African-Americans, Anglos and Latinos. She performs their words verbatim from transcripts of her taped interviews, portraying well-known figures like former LAPD Chief Daryl F. Gates, who complains about being the symbol of police brutality, and ordinary citizens like Elvira Evers, an expectant mother wounded by a gunshot during the violence following the Simi Valley verdict. Smith gives us a human glimpse of truck driver Reginald O. Denny, who describes his early days of recovery after being beaten at the intersection of Florence and Normandie. And she takes us inside the jury room of the federal civil-rights trial as Maria, one of the jurors, gives a humorous and profane accounting of the panel's deliberations.

Smith, born and raised in Baltimore, calls herself, "a repeater rather than a mimic." A 1977 graduate of San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre, she got an odd lesson in the polities of race when casting agents said she was too light-skinned to play black characters. She soon started writing plays and teaching; in 1983, she began her series of interview-based performances—she calls this work On the Road: A Search for American Character.

Smith currently teaches drama at Stanford, where she often has her students recreate TV talk shows in the verbatim style she uses in Twilight. She is tall and thin, a strict vegetarian whose face speaks of discipline. In conversation backstage at the Taper, Smith is alternately animated and guarded, at once quick to answer and then cautious, careful in crafting a reply.


[Proffitt]: Do you remember what you were doing, and how you felt when you heard about the verdict in the original Rodney King-beating trial?

[Smith]: I was in New York, and I was in rehearsal for the opening of Fires in the Mirror. That means that I was in the theater all the time, in a sort of black box. When I got home from rehearsal, there were all these messages on my machine, from friends, telling me what had happened in Los Angeles. My show was set to open, but we closed down—postponed it—just like everybody else. I was actually kind of glad. It made more sense to go to Times Square and see what was happening than to be performing, so that's exactly what I did.

It's hard to say what my emotional reactions were to the verdict. Just that I wasn't surprised. It was as if the steam had been let out of a high-pressure cooker. You know, I lived here in the late '80s, and taught at the University of Southern California, and I thought that it was such a peculiar environment. I think a lot of L.A. is something like USC—this incredible white culture living in the midst of color, and no obvious reaction to it at all. I mean, they have guards at the gate at USC—guards at the gate of a major university! And the guards chase young black boys away—I've seen it, chasing 8-year-old boys. And I don't think that is organic, or natural or good. So I suppose that the verdict did not surprise me.

When you were asked to come to L.A. and make a performance about the city exploding after the verdict, did you have any hesitation?

No, I didn't hesitate, because my other project had been about a similar situation. I was thinking a lot about race and the differences between people, and I wanted to come, to see the city, to know what happened here.

What did you expect to find here, and what surprised you?

I didn't expect anything. I go in without really knowing. I do what I call a search for discovery of character, which is the stuff you don't know. So I knew very little about the people I interviewed, and that is part of the relationship I developed with them.

I was, however, nervous about my own ethnocentricity, and I was concerned that I would bring to this process a structure of looking at race as only black and white, and I knew intellectually that I wanted to disrupt that. Because the issues in Los Angeles are really about very complicated interactions.

In putting this project together, what disturbed you the most?

What disturbed me and what made me happy at the same time was the degree with which people fall out of...

(The entire section is 2363 words.)

Richard Hornby (review date Autumn 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, in The Hudson Review, Vol. XLVI, No. 3, Autumn, 1993, pp. 534-35.

[In the following excerpt, Hornby discusses Smith's performance in Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 and praises the play as a representative example of American regional theater.]

Twilight, like [Fires in the Mirror], deals with urban conflict, in this case the L.A. riots of April 1992. Smith interviewed hundreds of Los Angeleans involved in or affected by the riot (the latter group including almost everybody), and ended up performing 27 of them, including Reginald Denny, Police Chief Daryl F. Gates, and a wide range of others, rich...

(The entire section is 465 words.)

Jan Stuart (review date 24 March 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Twilight: Group Therapy for a Nation," in Newsday, March 24, 1994.

[In the following review, Stuart lauds Smith's deft handling of complex characters and situations in Twilight.]

Toward the end of her heroic docu-theater event about the police beating of Rodney King and its violent aftermath, Anna Deavere Smith does something very, very clever.

Having impersonated dozens of participants in the 1992 Los Angeles maelstrom for some two hours, Smith steps into the shoes of Maria, a juror in the second Rodney King trial. We like Maria. She's theatrical, a spiky, pull-no-punches sort with a few choice words reserved for her fellow jurors....

(The entire section is 720 words.)

Michael Feingold (review date 5 April 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Twilight's First Gleaming," in The Village Voice, Vol. XXXIX, No. 14, April 5, 1994, pp. 97, 100.

[In the following review, Feingold praises Smith both as a performer and as a writer.]

Roughly 10 minutes into Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, Anna Deavere Smith disappears. I can't cite the exact moment; her material's so riveting that you only notice her absence after the fact. The artist, the selecting principle, has gone; what remains onstage is the life of L.A. before, during, and after the riots: men, women, and children, talking in a torrent of diverse languages, living out their anger, their pain, their injuries and resentments and joys and fears. Few...

(The entire section is 966 words.)

Robert Brustein (review date 2 May 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "P.C.—or Not P.C.," in The New Republic, Vol. 210, No. 18, May 2, 1994, pp. 29-31.

[Brustein is a highly-regarded American drama critic. In the review of Twilight below, he comments on Smith's performance, her characterization, and her depiction of the multicultural issues surrounding the riots.]

The most cogent commentators on our stormy times have unquestionably been not the columnists but the cartoonists, which is another way of noting that representational satire has more capacity than political commentary to relieve the pressures of a fractious age. On stage two inspired performers have recently been offering their own perspectives on the issues...

(The entire section is 1159 words.)

Sean Mitchell (review date 12 June 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Tangle over Twilight," in Los Angeles Times, June 12, 1994, pp. 7, 48.

[In the following excerpt, Mitchell discusses the controversy over whether Twilight should be characterized as journalism or art.]

Anna Deavere Smith's one-woman play about the riots, Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, now struggling to survive on Broadway after six weeks despite rapturous reviews and standing ovations, could gain additional longevity and respect if it wins either of the two major Tony Awards for which it is nominated tonight in New York.

Since its prominent premiere [in 1993] at the Mark Taper Forum, which commissioned it,...

(The entire section is 1623 words.)