Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992

by Anna Deavere Smith

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Smith's Skill as a Performer of Her Own Material

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1562

On January 27, 1997, at the New York Town Hall, Anna Deavere Smith moderated a debate between playwright August Wilson and theater pundit Robert Brustein over Wilson's position that black American playwrights should work within a theater exclusively devoted to black culture. Wilson had taken particular umbrage with the practice of "color-blind-casting," especially as it pertains to casting black actors in “white'' plays. According to Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in Wilson's view, "for a black actor to walk the stage of Western drama was to collaborate with the culture of racism," to demean, and to rob the actor of his or her true and distinct identity.

Whether or not Wilson is in some ways "an unlikely spokesman for a new Black Arts movement," as Gates maintains, he has championed a view that seems diametrically opposed to what Smith practices in her multi-cultural, mimetic art. Described by Sharon Fitzgerald as "Anna of a thousand faces," Smith dons the character of her interviewed subjects without a nanosecond's regard for the politically-correct idea that actors should portray only what their birthright entitles them to portray. In her one-woman performances of Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, she has impersonated an imposing array of real people of different color, sex, national origin, socioeconomic class, political complexion, and age—shedding and donning character guises like a human chameleon.

Her purpose, too, seems antithetical to what Wilson preaches. As Lauren Feldman argues, "Smith inspires us to scrutinize common constructions of race, our own complicity in the events that continue to shape American race relations, and the role of the arts in reproducing or deconstructing social stereotypes." Thus, in searching for the American character, Smith has elected to deal with actual people at critical junctures in their lives, when their identities and even their lives are at risk. Moreover, she maintains that if American theater is to "mirror society'' honestly, it “must embrace diversity.'' To that end, she crowds her dramatic canvass with portraits of diverse people caught in moments of reflection on an emotionally charged and violent set of real events. Hers is an assimilative aim, to synthesize such diverse voices into a "more complex language" which "our race dialogue desperately needs." In contrast, Wilson's separatist aim seems completely inimical to such a race dialogue.

The niggling question is whether that more complex language is inherent in the text of Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 or in the artistry of Smith as actress—or whether, indeed, the two can ever be separated. She has been credited with silencing "all the questions about racial identity in race-specific plays." For William Sun and Faye Fei, Smith has evolved "a unique genre" that allows her to pirouette convincingly through her characterizations without benefit of masks or makeup. Her range is simply extraordinary, covering a "full spectrum that runs between opposite racial, political, and ideological poles." In one moment, she is a white, middle-aged male, such as former LAPD Chief Daryl Gates; in the next, through a "morphing" of her face, gestures, posture, and, most of all, her voice, she becomes a female, like Elvira Edwards, the young Panamanian mother, or Elaine Brown, the over-fifty, former head of the Black Panther Party. Then, in a wink of the eye, she is a man again, but this time a proud and angry man, like Mexican-American artist, Rudy Salas, or the old Korean immigrant, Chung Lee, who can only speak in his native tongue. While a backdrop video screen provides footage of the Los Angeles rioting and beatings of Rodney King and Reginald Denny, the remarkable metamorphoses themselves are usually aided with only the barest theatrical amenities: slide projections identifying each character by a caption, name and, brief identifier; some minimal adjustments in stage and hand properties; and some slight costume changes, usually involving only one or two items of dress, like a hat and a shirt, or a pair of shoes and a jacket.

Her rendering of these "characters" has earned Smith warm praise from critics and audiences alike. She has repeatedly awed theater patrons with her rare mimetic gifts, leading more than one commentator to remark on her virtuosity. She has also been praised for her boldness, for her crossing of race, gender and language barriers, for finding and mining the humor that somehow survives the cataclysmic events behind the work, and for her innovative blending of theater arts, journalism and social sciences into that unique genre identified by scholars Sun and Fei.

Wisely, Smith does not depict herself as a character. She simply discards her real persona, the writer who spent countless hours interviewing her subjects. Furthermore, as Michael Feingold remarks, at some point early on in her performance, the actress, Anna Deavere Smith, paradoxically "disappears," leaving just "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." Each character speaks in a monologue, seldom, if ever, making reference to Smith or revealing the inquiry-response format of the interview process. She delivers their words "verbatim to an audience that often includes her 'characters' themselves," as Sun and Fei have noted. Her great skill in "acting otherness" has convinced even the most dubious members of her audience that she "can be as true as, or even truer than" those real persons she presents to the critical ear and eye.

In the final analysis, Smith does not really disappear during performance. She cannot and does not try to replicate her subjects through elaborate theatrical cloning. The audience is never invited to penetrate any sort of disguise, because, in truth, she never really dons one. Maskless through each of her portrayals, she maintains, however tenuously, her own identity, not as writer but as actress. Furthermore, it is her persistent presence as a black actress that provides a powerful counterpoint to her dramatic portrayals. This "simultaneous presence of performer and performed'' is what Richard Schechner calls "doubling," a quality "that marks great performances." That is part of Smith's "shamanic invocation," a way of inviting the audience to "allow the other in, to feel what the other is feeling," a way of achieving an extraordinary degree of empathy.

Smith's play text does not, of course, consist of her own words. As she has indicated, in Twilight she has assembled a "document of what an actress heard in Los Angeles." In doing so, says Monica Cortes, she "shares the authority of authorship with the community that is the subject of her piece." Using the actual language of people who normally remain unheard, Smith gives them significant weight, shouldered by the "authority" of their shared authorship.

Yet, because she only recorded what others said, some have questioned her legitimacy as a playwright. Such reservations arise from a strict adherence to a single-author concept, what Iris Smith labels the "modernist notion of authorship." An alternate model, coming into its own of late, is what she calls "the theater collective," a method by which "play writing is intertwined with play staging, and often done by the same actors, directors and artists.'' Although Anna Smith acts in solo performance, she has worked extensively with dramaturges as collaborators, and has continued to deal with Twilight as a theatrical work in progress, not something forever restricted to the order or inclusiveness of a text which is at once both more and less the play. For critic Smith, Anna Smith qualifies as one of those "willing to risk losing control over the work, if the text can go out and do good work in the world."

Good work is surely the playwright's aim. She admits to a polemical purpose, to demonstrate that we "must reach across ethnic boundaries" to achieve some sympathetic understanding in the race dialogue she so fervently seeks. She also admits to being political, the inevitable legacy of her gender and race. “I am political without opening my mouth,'' she says; "my presence is political."

Therein may lie the rub. Smith has expressed an interest in having other actors perform her play, perhaps an ensemble of players. But one must wonder if other interpreters of the text could or would do justice to her purpose—the promotion of a new community dialogue. Sandra Loh, who maintains that Smith's cross-ethnic depictions involve an "ironic twist," argues that the actress-playwright could never get away with “impersonating'' her array of sexually and racially mixed characters "if she were a white heterosexual male." Probably not, but more to the point, if the play were interpreted by a white actor, male or female, its meaning would certainly drift off Smith's intended course, thanks to unavoidable nuances that would result from the "doubling" effect of which Schechner writes.

One must also question whether anyone who has not dealt one-on-one with the real people of Smith's docudrama could, as Lauren Feldman remarks, "capture the characters with the same convincing compassion." One suspects that, at the least, Smith herself would have to coach the audacious actor who attempts to follow in her solo-performance footsteps. That possibility, like the community's memory of the events behind the play, is transitory. It also gives rise to Feldman's question: "will Twilight lose force with each additional degree of separation?" The answer is probably "yes," but it will not really matter if the race dialogue that Smith seeks is in authentic progress.

Source: John Fiero, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 1997.

Multicultural Issues Surrounding the Los Angeles Riots

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1131

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 nots 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, swash-buckling 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.

Source: Robert Brustein, "P.C.—or Not PC " in the New Republic, Vol. 210, no 18, May 2,1994, pp 29-31.

Smith's Skill With Multiple and Complex Characters

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 705

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 die 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-deforce 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.

Source: Jan Stuart, Twilight: Group Therapy for a Nation' in Newsday, March 24,1994.

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