Anna Deavere Smith

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

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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...

(This entire section contains 2363 words.)

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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 language when they try to tell me what happened here two Aprils ago. They don't have words. On the one hand, you say, what kind of education do these people have that they can't talk about race? On the other hand, I'm glad that there isn't a full articulation, because I am distrustful of that. Words can be, as Harold Pinter says, a strategy to cover nakedness. They can get in the way of a full understanding. But there is still something disturbing about otherwise fully educated people who can't talk about questions of race and the differences between people.

Was there anything that gave you reason for hope?

I think just about everyone who I interviewed for this show said something that gave me a glimmer of hope. And the other thing that gives me hope is that so many people want to come and see this show about race and pain—they could just say, "Who wants to bring that up again. Thank God, it was over in five days—why do we have to go through this again?" Because they do come makes me think that people want to know more—they want to revisit it, think about it and they want to change.

You know, Michael Jackson, the radio host, told me that everything in the world is here. If that's the case, then Los Angeles really is the racial frontier, and it can lead the way for the rest of the nation. It can turn pain into gold. It only takes opening hearts and relieving the mind of the work.

You held a number of discussions with audiences after your performances. What went on in those forums—what were people saying about where they want the city to go?

The discussions are important, because my goal is to bring people to the theater who normally wouldn't be in the same room together. It's using theater to create a kind of community. And in my show, people react differently. Sometimes, some people laugh, and others are offended by that laughter—so it's obvious that they are in an environment where people have differing points of view.

It's been lucky here that people don't really want to talk much about the performance—in New York, people always asked about how I learned lines, or dialects. Here in L.A., people get right down to talking about the city, and their lives—which is great. I see the play as a call, and the audience as part of the response to that call.

We had a very interesting post-play discussion a few weeks ago. There were a lot of younger people in the audience, high-school kids. And it was interesting that these young people tended to be much more hopeful than the older people. That's a great sign, because one way of looking at the younger generation is that they are kind of hopeless and in despair, but that doesn't seem to be across-the-board, by any means.

Some people have been critical of this performance, because there is no one in it who seems to have a unifying vision of Los Angeles. Do you think there is anyone in Los Angeles who has that vision?

Have you met anyone who has that vision? When people expect from me this one answer—some single, unifying thing—I feel so bad, because I just don't think that's fully intelligent right now.

You see, my work, at least at this moment, isn't about unifying. A unifying idea is not enough. It's why I don't really put my own point of view into the piece, because once you put forward a powerful voice, be it truth or not, it makes the other voices seem smaller. My work is about giving voice to the unheard, and reiterating the voice of the heard in such a way that you question, or re-examine, what is the truth. And we have to be able to tolerate more than one voice.

My main concern is theater, and theater does not reflect or mirror society. It has been stingy and selfish and it has to do better. And the way to make it better, and to make society better, is not to put out one voice that seems to bring us all together, because we are not all together: We are in fragments. Maybe what we can bring to the world is a society that achieves living together in peace in another way. Maybe this is a time to build bridges between multiple communities, rather than trying to come up with some sort of false unity. You know, interesting minds usually do hold more than one idea at a time.

But do you think there is someone—an L.A. messiah if you will—someone who can bring a sense of wholeness to this polyglot community?

I think there are small messiahs, and what we need to do is encourage these people to speak with one another and come out of that meeting with a big picture. We need to get Twilight [a proponent of gang truces] in the same room with [former Los Angeles Times publisher] Otis Chandler.

I wish there were a prophet who could touch the hearts of Angelenos in such a way that they would be less afraid of coming out and touching each other. Our institutions have not facilitated the growth of such a person—one who can speak for more than just himself. Nothing is encouraging the growth of that hybrid flower. And what that tells us is that we must prepare—now—so that in 20 years we do have that flower, an individual who can speak more than one language, for more than one type of person.

The title of your performance—Twilight—resonates in a variety of ways. In your show, a character named Twilight talks about that time between the light and dark as being a sort of limbo. Do you see that as a metaphor for this city? Are we in Los Angeles caught between a past we reject and a future we can't quite grasp?

That's what I'm gathering—that the city is in suspense and in suspension. What's gonna happen next? And not just in Los Angeles. I think American identity is in a kind of limbo right now.

To me, twilight also implies something about seeing and what we have to do to see. In twilight we have to look harder to see. The person named Twilight says that he doesn't think that night and dark are negative, he just thinks they are what comes first. I think that is a gorgeous and hopeful way to look at the dark period we are in now—that this is not negative, it's what comes first. And Twilight goes on to say that he sees the light as the knowledge and wisdom of the world. But almost implied in that is that knowledge alone is not enough.

If I have a single thing to say to the city of Los Angeles while I am here, it's what Twilight says—that to be a full human being, I cannot forever dwell in darkness. I cannot forever dwell in the idea of identifying only with those like me and understanding only my kind. That's the main thing I have to say.

Richard Hornby (review date Autumn 1993)

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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 and poor, black, white, Latino, and Asian. Rodney King apparently declined to be included, but his Aunt, Angela King, was interviewed and made the cut, as did an anonymous Simi Valley juror.

As Smith began her performance, I still felt dubious as to the point of it all. Why not simply edit the taped interviews to create a typically earnest PBS show, letting the people speak for themselves? But Smith's style of performance won me over. On the one hand, she does not, like a nightclub impressionist, transform herself totally into each character, but on the other hand, she does not, like a television reporter, just detachedly quote the characters' words. Her performances are fully energized, seeming to be driven from within. Using a simple bit of costume—a baseball cap, a tie, a floral skirt—as an emblem of each person, she reproduces the person's accent, rhythms, and body language, but always remains herself, a tall, striking, but not beautiful black woman. She becomes both herself and the character, a perfect example of the kind of "alienated" performance that Brecht called for, making the character distanced, strange, highlighted. The sincere but bland quality that occurs when someone is interviewed on TV was replaced by a heightened resonance; these all-too-familiar Los Angeleans became historic figures.

The historicism was heightened by the scrupulous neutrality that Smith maintained toward the characters, who represented the entire political spectrum. Whether depicting a gun store owner or a gunshot victim, she presented the person's words with complete sincerity, without any comment or non-verbal innuendo. Even her performance of Police Chief Gates, the most lampoonable figure in L.A. history, was simple and affecting. It remained for us, the audience, to ponder these figures and sort out our feelings toward them. The piece became a vehicle for the conception of our crazy city and its troubles, offering no solutions, but exposing all ideologies, confusions, and contradictions. Despite being performed by a single person, Twilight [is similar to] other historical, regional theatre plays …, with a large number of characters, historical scope, and an extroverted acting style. It is yet another example of how regional theatre in American has finally come of age.

Jan Stuart (review date 24 March 1994)

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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. "Brain-dead," for starters.

One by one, Maria takes aim and caricatures each of her colleagues with their psychic pants down, constructing before our eyes a devastating archetype of group dynamics and the tortuous process by which strangers plow beyond their dissimilarities to get something done. Maria's impromptu performance is a panic—cathartically, bust-a-gut funny; as our laughter subsides, it may occur to us that the jury's breakthrough mirrors our own progress as we make our way through Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992.

The Maria monologue, indeed, is a microcosm, a summing-up of the experience of watching this challenging "one-person" show. Following the model of Fires in the Mirror, Smith's journalistic kaleidoscope of the Crown Heights riots, Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 distills dozens of interviews she conducted with players in recent events. African- and Asian-American, white, rich, poor, women, men, brain-dead and alive, the contrasting perspectives pile up before us, each of them so steadfastly believing in the correctness of their positions. Well before it's over, we begin to wonder how anything as implicitly harmonious as a verdict is possible in a multicultural soup such as the United States.

The soup thickens as Smith moves away from Crown Heights and into the L.A. of Twilight, whose ethnic and class tensions reflect the broader spectrum of American culture directly affected by the King beating. The racial cauldron of Twilight spills over into the shooting of a 15-year-old African-American girl by a Korean-American shopkeeper, as well as the riot attack on white truck driver Reginald Denny that followed the trial of the four officers charged with beating King.

Sliding deftly between interviewees with the suggestive turn of a sweater, Smith lines up her characters in a boldly ironic juxtaposition that recalls the inspired oral histories of Studs Terkel and the political documentaries of Marcel Ophuls. The back-to-back proximity of her subjects provokes two responses: At first we notice the seemingly unbridgeable divide from one monologue to the next; then we are struck by the unexpected bonds. Reginald Denny, sweet-tempered, forgiving, a bit out of it, seems a world away from Paul Parker, the shrewd, rage-driven head of the defense committee for Denny's attackers. As we listen more, we begin to see the synchronicity in their notions of justice; the urgency with which each of them argues their cases is thrilling.

The heightened complexity of Smith's L.A. terrain is matched by a newfound subtlety in her performance (in contrast to George C. Wolfe's booming, projection-happy staging) and a more ambitious use of transcripts. Where Fires hugged to a formulaic procession of individual arias, Twilight often splices as many as three witnesses into a seamless rush of testimony, working up a fierce, cinematic intensity.

If Smith occasionally tosses us a few sacrificial lambs for those with the guilty need to feel superior (a braying, face-lifted real-estate agent who hides out at the Beverly Hills Hotel for the duration of the riots), she discourages the easy laugh and the foregone conclusion. Mostly, Smith gets us to listen. She validates, vigorously and humorously, the other side of the coin. She wants us to entertain the possibility of ambiguity.

By the time Maria launches into her tour-de-force vaudeville of a jury's A.A.-style confessional, we understand that we have already witnessed the same process. Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 is group therapy on a national scale based on the belief that we each have to dump our ugly personal baggage out on the table for all to see, before we can then get down to the difficult business of healing. Smith shows us how to do that with a breathtaking collage of real-life people who make us want to stand up and cheer, then sit back down and reflect.

Michael Feingold (review date 5 April 1994)

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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 stages have ever held such a huge, varied crowd; you meet, if my count is right, 46 people, from senators to gang members, opera stars to truck drivers.

And, aside from a minute flick of her distinguished chin as each new figure begins to speak, you never feel that Smith is manipulating or controlling your encounter with these people; she's mastered the art that conceals art, so that they seem to be talking to you from their hearts. Only the technology encircling her—audio, video, subtitles, shifting projection screens, set pieces that slide discreetly in and out—reminds you now and then that you're watching a show, not seeing an American city spill its guts. The technology stays in the background: With Smith only people matter.

This is, of course, her thesis as well as her aesthetic. Smith the interviewer may exercise an editor's selectivity, balancing points of view, arranging the story so that we see all sides; Smith the actress never tilts this balance, creating the slick excuses of head cop Daryl Gates with the same fullness as the mournful shrugs of Rodney King's aunt. To her, people's hesitations, repetitions, and desk-poundings are evidence, used not to prosecute the individual but to reveal the inner self.

Early on, there's what looks like a caricature of a shrill, silly white woman, the realtor Elaine Young; when a similarly shrill voice and extreme gestures are used later for Elaine Brown, once head of the Black Panther Party, you think, well, maybe these two women are more alike than either of them would suspect. Brown's shrillness doesn't hamper the good sense and compassion of her words; Young's are foolish, but harmless; you think, well, they could easily live in one community, who put so many barriers between them?

Smith carries this notion to the edge: One of the men who attacked Reginald Denny defends his act by bringing up Rodney King: "I wasn't raised to take ass whuppins like that and turn the other cheek." Later, a white female reporter, frenetically showing a tape of Denny's beating over and over, says, "I hate guns, but you know what? If my life is threatened, I'm not even going to hesitate, I'll pull that trigger." In anger as in compassion, the people come to resemble one another. Smith's most remarkable achievement is to make us see their underlying similarities by being so faithful to the differences. Inside the anger and hate, she finds sources of potential community.

Less a city than a centerless mass of urban sprawl, L.A.'s history and geography tell against it: the showbiz excesses of money and social dislocation; the insane disparity between rich and poor; the endless inpouring of people from Mexico, Asia, New York. City of dreams to others, L.A. has always been a secret horror to itself, rife with distrust and denial, snobbery and bigotry. The tales of police brutality go back for decades; even the lawyer for one of Rodney King's assailants has one to tell. Either a nightmare portent of our future, or a dying white elephant from our imperial past, the city sits there, imploding.

Telling the story of the riots from her 46 points of view, Smith in effect shows how to restructure the city: start over with the human factor. She begins as a Korean merchant (in Korean) and ends as a black gang leader discussing a truce. In between we see looters, victims, cops, bystanders, outsiders: A spokeswoman for the family of a black teenager shot by a storekeeper tells her, "Those Koreans all look alike." Rodney King's aunt says, "We were raised with all kinds of friends, Mexicans, Indians, blacks, whites, Chinese … Who'd have thought this would happen to us?"

A Latino artist recalls being beaten by cops in the zoot-suit riots of 1942; a white juror in the first trial moans like a stricken dog at having been praised for the verdict by the KKK. A Panamanian woman tells, imperturbably, how she was wounded by a stray bullet and, pregnant, made her way safely to the hospital. (Delivering her baby, doctors removed the bullet from its elbow.) Only moments later, Jessye Norman is there—yes, the svelte Smith, without artifice, plays Jessye Norman—to tell of having passed through L.A. the first day of the riots: "I think that if I were a teenager … and I felt I were being heard for the first time, it would not be singing as we know it. It would be a roar … it would come from the bottom of my feet."

Smith's triple ability—to evoke such statements, to recreate them so scrupulously, and to sculpt the assemblage so richly—is beyond anything else of its kind. Her inspiration may be the TV news bite; if so, she's a blazing reminder that the theater's not only faster and more vivid than the tube, but cuts deeper and reaches higher. She reaffirms, finally, that human beings are art's first concern, as they have to be a city's. Twilight is a gleam of hope for both theater and urban life; to watch it is like being present at the renegotiation of our shredded social contract.

Robert Brustein (review date 2 May 1994)

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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 that divide us, and while the African American Anna Deavere Smith and the Jewish Jackie Mason seem worlds apart in tone, attitude, focus and ethnicity, they each provide more perspective on the nature of our discords than an army of op-ed pundits.

It is true that Smith might be more accurately described as a sociologist than as a satirist. Both in her previous Fires in the Mirror, which covered the Crown Heights affair, and in her current piece at the Joseph Papp Public Theater, Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, which deals with the riots in South-Central L.A., she has drawn her material from interviews with the actual participants in those events. Still, Smith is not only an objective ear but a characterizing voice, and just as she shapes her text through editing and selection, so she achieves her emphasis through gesture and intonation. During the course of the evening the actress impersonates forty-six different people, capturing the essence of each character less through mimetic transformation, like an actor, than through the caricaturist's body English and vocal embellishments. Just look at her photographs: you'd never guess from any of those contorted head shots that she's an extremely handsome young woman.

Smith's subjects divide essentially into victims, victimizers and viewers, though it is sometimes difficult to determine which is which. If the former L.A. Police Chief Daryl Gates (defending himself against charges that he permitted the riots to rage while attending a fundraiser) and Sergeant Charles Duke (complaining that Officer Lawrence Powell was "weak and inefficient with the baton" because he wasn't allowed to use the "choke-hold") are clearly the patsies of the piece, the rioters, looters, gang members and assailants often appear more sinned against than sinning. A white juror in the first Rodney King trial—asked by a reporter, "Why are you hiding your heads in shame?"—is appalled to receive approving calls from the KKK. Keith Watson, one of those acquitted of beating Reginald Denny, justifies his rage and the burned-out vacant lots by saying "justice didn't work," while Paul Parker, chairperson of the Free the L.A. Four Defense Committee, charges "You kidnapped us, you raped our women … you expect us to feel something for the white boy?" One gringo-hating Latino, ranting against the "peckerwoods" and "rednecks" who have persecuted his family, expresses pleasure in the way Mexicans are able to terrify whites. Another Latino is encouraged by a policeman to "go for it, it's your neighborhood." A black woman "touring" in the white neighborhood loots I. Magnin because she finds it "very offensive" that rich stars should feel protected from rioting.

Then there are the other victims: the Asian shopkeepers who, in those tumultuous days, lost 90 percent of their stores and a number of their family members. At the same time that a spokesperson for a young black girl shot by a Korean shopkeeper (who was acquitted) is raging against Asians, Mrs. Young Soon Han, a former liquor store owner, speaks of her disenchantment with blacks. There were none in the Hollywood movies she saw in Korea; she thought this country was the best. Now "they" have destroyed the shops of innocent merchants simply because "we have a car and a house…. Where do I find justice? What about victims' rights?" Another store owner, inveighing against shoplifting and looting, remarks, "After that, I really hate this country, I really hate—we are not like customer and owner but more like enemy."

"Enemy" and "hate" are the operative words of Twilight. With each ethnic group bristling at the other, one might think "cultural diversity" had become a euphemism for race war. A Mexican woman reporter, told her life is in danger, replies: "How could they think I was white?" The African American Parker boasts how "we burnt down the Koreans—they are like the Jews in this neighborhood." And this is countered not by appeals for tolerance but by counsels of caution, like those of Elaine Brown, former Black Panther, reminding the gun-brandishing, swashbuckling looters about America's willingness to use its power: "Ask Saddam Hussein."

To judge by the interviews in Twilight, however, the Los Angeles riots caused a lot of soul-searching, and considerable guilt, among some white Americans. The experience certainly stimulated considerable generosity from Denny, who, pleading for recognition as a person rather than a color, expresses profound gratitude to the black people who risked their lives to save him. By contrast, others, such as a reporter named Judith Tur, wonder why South-Central blacks can't be more like Magic Johnson or Arthur Ashe, adding that "white people are getting so angry, they're going back fifty years." A suburban real estate agent named Elaine Young, who has had thirty-six silicone surgeries on her face, whines that "we don't have the freeway, we can't eat anywhere, everything's closed," meanwhile defending her decision to hole up in the Beverly Hills Hotel.

These are easy targets; and it is true that Twilight sometimes lacks the dialectical thickness, as well as the surprise and unpredictability, of Fires in the Mirror. Lasting over two hours, it seems too long and too short for its subject. The L.A. riots were a response to violence and injustice by means of violence and injustice, and the paradox still to be explored is how looting and burning Korean stores and destroying your own neighborhood, not to mention racial assaults on innocent people, could become acceptable means of protest against inequity and racism. With most of them still in shock, few of Smith's respondents are in a position to examine the irrationality of such acts unless, like Shelby Coffey, they cite "a vast, even Shakespearean range of motives."

Smith makes some effort to penetrate these motives by ending her piece with a poetic reflection by a gang member on the "limbo" twilight of crack addicts, but the metaphor somehow seems inadequate. Still, if she has not always gone beyond the events of this tragedy, she has powerfully dramatized a world of almost universal tension and hatred. George C. Wolfe's elaborate production, with its videos of King's beating and films of Los Angeles burning, is probably more appropriate for the coming Broadway move than for the stage of the Public. But it leaves us with a shocking sense of how America's hopes for racial harmony were left burning in the ashes of South-Central L.A.

Sean Mitchell (review date 12 June 1994)

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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, Twilight has been both hailed as a sensational theatrical event and bedeviled by disagreement in the theater community and press as to how it should be measured—whether it is truly a work of the imagination and therefore pure dramatic art, or whether it is a form of journalism as performance art and therefore something less.

The argument was highlighted a few weeks ago when this year's Pulitzer Prize jury in drama disallowed Twilight for final consideration on the grounds that its language was not invented but gleaned from interviews. That it was even being discussed by the Pulitzer jury was an indication of how high the play had soared in the minds of some critics, while the decision to disqualify it for technical reasons might have been puzzling to anyone aware that the previous year's Pulitzer jury had judged Smith's earlier show Fires in the Mirror (similarly developed and performed, about ethnic battles in Brooklyn) a legitimate runner-up for the 1992 prize.

The Tony nominating committee evidently had no such qualms about Twilight, but to further confuse the general public, some will notice that while Twilight is one of the four Broadway plays up for best play (along with Tony Kushner's Perestroika, Robert Schenkkan's The Kentucky Cycle and Arthur Miller's Broken Glass), the play that won this year's Pulitzer, Edward Albee's Three Tall Women, is not represented tonight. That's because Three Tall Women is playing Off Broadway, and the Tonys stubbornly limit themselves (yes, still) to shows playing inside the geographical boundaries of the historic theater district in houses with at least 500 seats….

[The] debate over Twilight's worthiness for these traditional honors is not so surprising given that it seems to be a wholly new form, dazzling but unfamiliar—and there-fore a challenge and threat to established boundaries of official approbation.

Yet the debate is confounding all the same to those who believe that the first measure of any play or theater work—especially in today's beleaguered theater world—is whether it makes itself felt so strongly that people want to see it. And this certainly was true of Twilight in Los Angeles, where in its last weeks it broke box-office records for the Taper.

Smith, a San Francisco-based actress, assembled the two-hour piece from 200 tape-recorded interviews she conducted with all manner of people involved in or affected by the three days of violence and civil disturbance that began April 29, 1992. She described the intention of Twilight as "my search for the character of Los Angeles in the wake of the initial Rodney King verdict."

She revealed that character through her uncanny impersonations of roughly two dozen of the people she had interviewed, stretching her talent for mimicry from the voices of public figures like Reginald O. Denny, Daryl Gates and Stanley Sheinbaum to anonymous citizens white, black and brown. In a series of fast-moving monologues, she painted a swirling collage of a city at war with itself. And she did this, under the circumstances, with a considerable amount of humor and entertainment value.

The effect Smith achieved onstage was impressive, but what was she doing exactly? Or did it matter what we called it? It was not a play like Our Town or Death of a Salesman, nor was it a personal monologue of the kinds popularized by such writer-actors as Spalding Gray and Eric Bogosian.

It was nonfiction, but interpretive nonfiction, a theatrical relation perhaps to the literary forms of "nonfiction novelists" like Truman Capote, Norman Mailer and Joseph Wambaugh who combined reporting with novelistic narratives.

Searching for the roots of Smith's Twilight method in so-called "documentary theater," one looks all the way back to the fabled Living Newspaper of the Federal Theatre Project during the 1930s, the Group Theater's Waiting for Lefty, by Clifford Odets (that addressed the 1937 New York taxi strike) or to the earlier Taper shows In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer (1968) and The Trial of the Catonsville 9 (1971). There is, of course, the work of Emily Mann (Still Life and Execution of Justice), who directed Twilight at the Taper. Even so, there seems to be no clear precedent for what Smith has done at this professional level. She appears to have established a new genre, and at the moment she is a genre of one. This is a mixed blessing at awards time.

She has also been nominated for best featured actress in Twilight, but traditionalists in the theater may not be ready to grant her full status as a writer, as an established older American playwright confided to me recently, while requesting anonymity. "It's an eloquent performance all right, but there's a lot of concern among Tony voters that it's not a play," said the playwright.

Robert Schenkkan, author of The Kentucky Cycle, which won the 1992 Pulitzer and is nominated for a Tony tonight, holds a similar view. "From a dramaturgical point of view, it's not a work of the imagination," said Schenkkan. "This is not to take anything away from her performance, which is amazing. I think of it as performance art, not as a play."

Others feel differently.

"I think it's going to be an issue for some critics and some people in the theater," said Emily Mann, a leading proponent and practitioner of documentary theater. "But a lot of writing, if you will, goes into one of these pieces. There's an incredible amount of craft involved. You still have to make a play."

"I thought it was wonderful," said Wendy Wasserstein, the playwright who won the Pulitzer in 1989 for The Heidi Chronicles and one who speaks up in Smith's behalf. "I think of it as a work of art. There is an individual voice there, the eye of the observer. It's constructed in a theatrical way. It moves. It's documentary theater but it's different from 'docudrama' because she's dealing with character. It begins with character, which is what it has in common with a lot of other plays."

Tom Moore, who directed the Pulitzer-winning 'night Mother on Broadway and the radio documentary play Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers for L.A. Theatre Works, said about Twilight: "It's the way one shapes reality that makes theater. Not anyone could come up with a way of doing that. There's an argument to be made that she did write part of it since she asked the questions.

"Theater is becoming a form that no one thinks is relevant, and here is a piece that has shown relevance and vibrancy, that is important, clever, and well-done. So why in the world should it be excluded?"

"That connection that is made between the stage and an audience and between the audience and the artist, that is what the theater is about," said Lloyd Richards, director of August Wilson's plays Fences (Pulitzer, 1987) and The Piano Lesson and for 30 years director [of] the National Playwrights Conference. Did he consider Twilight a play? "Categorizing it is something that's imposed on it. It's not what the art is about. One can say about something, what is the creative element in it? Sometimes assemblage is creative. I was moved or I was provoked or I was enraged or I was entertained by it. That's where it's at."

Oskar Eustis, a director at the Taper who worked with Smith as an adviser during the development of Twilight, made this observation: "Categories are invented before an art form is invented. When you have category confusion, the artists are usually ahead of the judges."…

There remains the question about Twilight: Will it last? Shouldn't the projected durability of a play or book or movie be a measure of its greatness or lack thereof? Probably, except that this is the most difficult of all standards to apply with any accuracy, given a glance at history. How many "classics" of just the last 25 years in the theater already qualify as answers to trivia questions?

Twilight seems a piece very much of the moment, an address to a city by a visitor who spent some time here and summed up her thoughts for the stage. But should this diminish its value? The Pulitzer jury concluded that Smith's work "is not reproducible by other performers because it relies for its authenticity on the performer's having done those interviews."

Smith herself disputes this conclusion and reasoning. But call it truth or call it fiction, it is hard to imagine an Anna Deavere Smith show without Anna Deavere Smith. Trying to read Twilight is only a little more fruitful than trying to read A Chorus Line or Phantom of the Opera. And in any case the published version differs significantly both from the staged version seen at the Taper and the one now on Broadway, which was altered again under a new director, George C. Wolfe, adding new characters (including a laughing Keith Watson, co-assailant of Reginald O. Denny). In a way, this continuous tinkering is just an additional problem for anyone trying to measure Smith for a formal gown of respectability. Because she is up to something else, asking audiences and the authorities to look at theater fundamentally as a work in progress, taking place one night at a time. This is possibly a radical idea.


Principal Works∗


Further Reading