Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992

by Anna Deavere Smith

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Critical Overview

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Anna Deavere Smith's Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 has garnered considerable critical acclaim through its production history, stretching from venues in Los Angeles and New York to Washington, D. C. and London, England. Its success in theaters far removed from the play's focus and epicenter, the Spring, 1992, civil upheaval in South-Central Los Angeles, attests to its power to transcend the topicality of its content—the real-world social problems that have led P. J. Corso and others to call her play a "docudrama."

For some critics, in her On the Road series, of which Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 and Fires in the Mirror are the most compelling and successful parts, Smith has created what a reviewer in Time claims is "a new art form." But what that new form is remains very controversial. So, too, does Smith's classification as a writer.

In analyzing Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 and other pieces from On the Road, some critics have pondered over this very issue. For Chris Vognar, the question is "what to call her? Actress/playwright? Anthropologist/ethnographer?" Smith's text, after all, is primarily an archive of the actual words of real people who lived through and in or near the turmoil that began with the beating of Rodney King and exploded into the South-Central Los Angeles rioting and looting. Smith compiled and arranged the monologues from interviews that she conducted with these people, leading some to discuss her role as writer as largely that of a journalist or "oral historian'' in the mold of her acknowledged mentor, Studs Terkel. The argument was rehashed by the 1994 Pulitzer Prize jury in drama, which removed Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 from consideration, as Sean Mitchell reported, because "its language was not invented but gleaned from interviews." It was also the opinion of the jury that the work could be performed only by Smith, because she alone conducted the interviews.

That critical caveat is not so troubling to those who see Smith as a “performance-playwright" and concentrate on her stage artistry rather than her compiled, inanimate text. Part of Smith's skill is revealed in the dramatic tapestry of disparate voices that she weaves in performance. As Jan Stuart notes, "Smith lines up her characters in a boldly ironic juxtaposition," threading her way through what Robert Brustein calls the "victims, victimizers, and viewers'' that she depicts.

More an arranger than a composer perhaps, but Smith, for most reviewers, has nevertheless worked theatrical magic in the various productions of Twilight. Almost no critic denies Smith's mimetic skills, her great artistic gift in depicting a broad spectrum of characters through what Monica Cortes calls "acting otherness." Martin Hernandez describes her as a "human chameleon, embodying each character with astounding flexibility.'' Through sudden shifts in her posture, gesture and voice, accompanied by minor, quick-change adjustments in dress, Smith transforms herself from one person into another, crossing chasms of race, gender, age, and class in the blink of an eye. Describing her technique, Richard Scheduler claims that Smith "works by means of deep mimesis, a process opposite to that of 'pretend.'" He maintains that she "incorporates" her characters and that her method "is less like that of a conventional Euro-American actor and more like that of African, Native American, and Asian ritualists."

More of a sticking point for interpreters of her play is Smith's assumed purpose in Twilight and other plays in her On the Road series. Most credit Smith with admirable objectivity and basic fairness. Michael Feingold argues that the playwright-actress arranges her materials "so that we see all sides" equitably. Smith "never tilts this balance," he maintains, but moves "inside the...

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anger and hate" of her diverse characters to find "sources of potential community" and the possibility of repairing "our shredded social contract." From this critical vantage point, Smith is a shaman-healer, helping a community and the nation bind up the wounds of class and racial discord.

There are, however, dissenting voices. For Stefan Kanfer, Smith's play is flawed because it advances "an illiberal agenda concealed by a mask of objectivity." He claims that "every member of a minority group is given a shred of dignity, a credible plea of despair,'' while the depicted whites are shown only as "brutes," "fools," or "insensitive naifs." From this point of view, Smith is biased, and her true agenda is not to heal but to place blame and, presumably, invoke white guilt.

Others, like Robert Brustein, while crediting Smith with "an objective ear," draw pessimistic conclusions from her play and performance. Noting that "hate" and "enemy" are "the operative words" of the play, Brustein claims that Twilight "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." That, of course, is not so much an indictment of the play as it is of society.

The most troubling critical question is whether there is in fact a play without the playwright. As Mitchell says, "it is hard to imagine an Anna Deavere Smith show without Anna Deavere Smith." When read, the matter she enlivens in performance is, according to Mitchell, “only a little more fruitful than trying to read A Chorus Line or Phantom of the Opera," Furthermore, as Kanfer points out, the final fate of two of the white police officers who beat Rodney King and the $3.8 million civil-suit award granted him "tend to vitiate the impact" of Smith's play. Can her play text survive Smith herself and its ever-increasing distance from the events that inspired it? Only time will tell.

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