Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 701
When Anna Deavere Smith first began her On the Road series of plays in 1983, the Soviet Bloc had begun disintegrating, and the Cold War was quickly winding down. It officially ended during the administration of President George Bush. Anticipated peace benefits did not really materialize, however, even though an economic recovery from a recession had begun by 1993, the year in which President William Clinton entered the Oval Office and Smith completed Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. Domestic violence, drug trafficking, and other criminal activity continued to plague the United States, as did global disasters affecting foreign policy. Not all the problems were man made, however.
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Natural Disasters Take Toll in U.S. and Abroad
In August of 1992, Hurricane Andrew hit the Homestead area of South Florida, killing 15, leaving 250,000 homeless and causing $20 billion in property damage. In the same year, flooding in Chicago and a violent Nor'easter striking East Coast states caused considerable damage and loss of life.
In the next year, another violent storm struck the Eastern Seaboard in March, claiming 240 lives and causing extensive property damage. In the summer, flooding of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers took 50 lives and destroyed an estimated $12 billion in property and crops.
Abroad, by 1992, famine in Somalia had killed over 300,000 people, and the ensuing anarchy prompted President Bush to send U. S. troops into Somalia under a United Nations mandate. Civil wars in Sudan, Angola, and Mozambique also created mass starvation. The next year, violent rains and earthquakes took over 20,000 lives in areas of India and Bangladesh.
Terrorism Hits America's Homeland
At home, the United States got its first serious taste of the kind of terrorist activities that have plagued many foreign countries. On February 26, 1993, a bomb set by Islamic fundamentalists at New York's World Trade Center killed six and forced 100,000 persons to evacuate the twin towers. Unlike the violence of the Los Angeles noting, arising from domestic problems, the attack on the World Trade Center was prompted by the foreign policy of the United States. It was also premeditated, not a spontaneous reaction to a specific perceived injustice.
Many Americans Remain in Poverty
The plight of the "unheard" inner-city minorities for whom Smith provides a voice in Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 is reflected in the fact that in 1993 over ten percent of all Americans had to depend on food stamps to get enough to eat. The total number, 26.6 million, was the highest in the program's history. Clearly, the improving economic picture was not helping the nation's poor, many of whom lived in urban slums like South-Central Los Angeles.
Efforts to Control Gun Sales Continues
In an on-going effort to reverse the growth of violent crime, including urban drive-by shootings, the federal government passed the "Brady Bill," signed into law on November 30, 1993. The law requires a five-day waiting period in the purchase of handguns. Earlier in the same month, the Senate passed a bill banning the manufacture and sale of assault-style automatic weapons, despite a major campaign launched by the National Rifle Association to prevent its passage. Demands for controls increased in the wake of the Long Island Railroad train attack by Colin Ferguson, who, on December 7, 1993, gunned down several commuters, leaving five dead and eighteen wounded.
Abortion Issue Continues to Divide America
Domestic violence in the United States was hardly limited to the economic and racial problems contributing to the upheaval in Los Angeles. America was divided over the issue of legalized abortion, for example. On March 10, 1993, during a demonstration outside a women's clinic in Pensacola, Florida, an anti-abortion advocate shot and killed Dr. David Gunn, Activists burned down or sprayed other abortion clinics with noxious chemicals in protest of an "abortion on demand'' policy.
Siege of Branch Davidian Cult at Waco Ends in Disaster
Anti-government groups, including private militias, continued to spring up in the United States, as did some religious cults with similar political agendas. The Branch Davidians, led by David Koresh, stood off a 51-day siege by government agents in Waco, Texas. On April 19, 1993, when stormed by federal law enforcement agents using tear gas, the cult members set fire to their compound, killing over 80 cult members, including two dozen children. The event contributed fuel to the anti-government activity that continues to afflict the nation.
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Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 has no narrative thread defining its structure. Its kinship is with eye-witness accounts reported in the media or responses to questions asked by a talk-show interviewer. The "story" behind the play consists of the actual events that occurred in Los Angeles over a two-year period. These include the beating of Rodney King, the trial and verdict in the ensuing trial, the violent community reaction, the beating of Reginald Denny, the federal Rodney King trial, and the trial and outcome of “L.A. Four” accused of the attempted murder of Denny.
The language of Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 is not the invention of the playwright. It consists of the actual words used by the real people that she interviewed, and it reflects various dialects and levels of command of English. For many of the figures, English is an adopted language, thus many speeches are with unidiomatic expressions and non-standard grammar. Smith's characters talk like real people because they are real people, and Smith as playwright-performer captures the colloquial cadences and texture of their speech in her literal transcriptions. In the case of Chung Lee, President of the Korean-American Victims Association, she even uses a figure who speaks Korean that must be translated by his son. As with her other ' 'characters," Smith studied Lee's speech and renders his voice verbatim in her performances.
Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 has been called a work of "documentary theater." The events discussed by the "characters" are real, as are the characters themselves. Smith's method is journalistic, but it is made dramatic by her on-stage renderings or performance of the real persons she depicts. On paper, her work is a collection of monologues compiled from her interviews. Her own voice is removed and her questions merely implied. On stage, Smith strives for objectivity and completely obscures her role as interviewer as she adapts the character and voice of those she had interviewed. Speaking of the published text of Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, Smith says her book ' 'is first and foremost a document of what an actress heard in Los Angeles," and that her "performance is a reiteration of that."
Almost all the characters in Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 present themselves in monologues in isolation from the rest of the dramatis personae. There is, in fact, a total absence of dialogue, the usual engine and necessary method of advancing story in dramatic form. The nature of the monologues varies greatly, as do the voices presenting them. Some are very articulate, rational, and coherent, while others are charged with emotion and often inchoate. The content of the monologues also varies greatly, running a gamut from self-vindication to heated diatribes against perceived injustices.
Drama, as a presentational form, unfolds in the here and now, and it ordinarily uses narrative primarily for exposition and the reporting of offstage actions. A common character in much traditional drama is the "messenger," who, for example, reports the outcome of a battle that cannot be depicted on stage. To some degree, the characters in Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 are all messengers, and the events they allude to or describe are things that have happened in the offstage world of South-Central Los Angeles. They are somewhat like media commentators and interpreters, not actors in a unfolding scene. It precisely for this reason that Smith's drama defies traditional classification.
There is really no symbolism in Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, at least not in the ordinary sense. Symbolism suggests a conscious artistry on the part of the writer, but Smith as writer is primarily a reporter and arranger. Her artistry is largely the interpretive artistry of theater, revealed in her performance of the voices that she has objectively recorded. Still, there is a sort of emblem in the concept of "twilight," a word used not only because it is the name of her titular figure, Twilight Bey, but also because it is used by others to suggest a kind of condition, the limbo of which Bey speaks. Twilight sees himself as "stuck in limbo," a place between dark and light for him, light is the "knowledge and wisdom of the world," while darkness, although not negative, means a narrower perspective, of, as he says, ' 'just identifying with people like me and understanding me and mine." That limbo, that twilight, seems equally descriptive of the condition of the City of Los Angeles and its people.
Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, with its focus on the problems of a great metropolis, is a work of urban realism. Like traditional narratives dealing with life in ghettos and slums, the work shows the plight of many inner-city residents, people who have to live with despair, anger, and frustration, subjected as they are to drive-by shootings, unemployment, drug trafficking, police brutality, economic exploitation, and a host of other problems. It does not, of course, suggest ways to solve the problems. Instead, it offers an almost clinical study of their effect on the lives of the people whose voices Smith gives public hearing on stage.
Stream of Consciousness
Smith faithfully renders what her subjects have actually said in their interviews with her. She removes only her own voice. Although the monologues are not interior stream-of-consciousness monologues, some of them are similar to that narrative technique in their free association of ideas. They are full of non-sequiturs, hesitation, and verbal hemming and hawing. That impromptu, unrehearsed quality is fundamental to the documentary authenticity of the work.
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As of the spring of 1997, among Smith's plays making up her On the Road series, only Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities had been produced for media presentation. However, since her success with Twilight and Fires, Smith has appeared on television and radio as speaker, debate moderator, and interviewed guest. She has also taken supporting roles in major films, including Mrs. Travis in Dave (1993), produced by Warner Bros., and Anthea Burton in Philadelphia (1993), produced by Tri-Star.
Fires in the Mirror was directed by George C. Wolfe for PBS's American Playhouse and aired on television in April, 1993, featuring Smith in solo performance; video is available from the Public Broadcasting System (PBS).
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Brustein, Robert "RC.—or Not P.C.," The New Republic, Vol. 210, no. 18, May 2,1994, pp 29- 31.
A review of the Joseph Papp Public Theater production of Twilight- Los Angeles, 1992 arguing that Smith might be better classified "as a sociologist than artist." Brustein divides her figures into "victims, victimizers and viewers "
Corso, P J. "Anna Deavere Smith," AFROAM-L Archives, October 24, 1994. http://www afrmet net/~hallh/afrotalk/ afrooct94/0546.hrml, February 16,1997.
Corso relates Smith's method and matter to the work of Bertolt Brecht but argues that the commercial success of her work inhibits its value as a catalyst for social change
Cortes, Monica Munoz "The Works of Anna Deavere Smith: An Exploration of Otherness," 95 McNair Journal. http://www.aad.berkeley.edu/95journal/MonicaCortes.html, January 15,1997.
Relates performance theory based on theories of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan to Smith's "theater of otherness "
Feingold, Michael. "Twilight's First Gleaming" in the Village Voice, Vol. 39, no. 14, April 5, 1994, pp. 97,100.
A very favorable review of the Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 staged in New York in which Femgold praises Smith's "triple ability" as interviewer, writer, and actress.
Feldman, Lauren. "A Constellation of Character," Perspective, http://hcs harvard edu/~perspy/may96/twilight html.
A review of Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 discussing the Smith's staging of the work and its evolution as the playwright's sense of race-relations have changed
Fitzgerald, Sharon. "Anna of a Thousand Faces" in American Visions, Vol. 9, no. 5, October-November, 1994, pp. 14-18.
Discussing both Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 and Fires in the Mirror, article covers both Smith's onstage techniques and motives in her writing.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr "The Chitlin Circuit" in the New Yorker, Vol 72, no. 45, February 3,1997, pp 44- 55.
Gates discusses August Wilson's position on the need for a separatist black theater while chastising him for never having been a "Chitlin Circuit" playwright.
Kanfer, Stefan. "Twilight Tragedies" in the New Leader, Vol 77, no 5, May 9,1994, pp 22-23.
A review that finds Smith's play flawed by its "illiberal agenda concealed by a mask of objectivity" and its "unwieldy" material.
Kroll, Jack. "Fire in the City of Angels" in Newsweek, Vol. 121, June 28,1993, pp. 62-63.
A very favorable review of the Mark Taper Forum production of Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, applauding Smith as "the most exciting individual in American theater right now."
Lewis, Barbara. "The Circle of Confusion: A Conversation with Anna Deavere Smith" in Kenyon Review, Vol.54,no 4, Winter, 1993, pp. 54-64.
Although this interview relates primarily to Fires in the Mirror, it gives insights to Smith's artistic aims and the influence of Ntozake Shange and George Wolfe on her work
"Lives Altered Forever" in Time, Vol. 141, June 28, 1993, p 73.
A review of the Mark Taper Forum production of Smith's play, finding the play "sprawling" in its coverage but flawed in its impression that blacks acted almost alone in the rioting and looting
Martin, Carol. "Anna Deavere Smith: The Word Becomes You" in the Drama Review, Vol. 37, no 4, Winter, 1993, pp 45-62.
An interview conducted with Smith, focusing on Fires in the Mirror, but covering Smith's technique and purpose in her whole On the Road series.
Mason, Susan Vaneta, editor "Theatre Review" in Theatre Journal, Vol. 46, 1994, pp 111-18.
A collection of reviews of the Mark Taper Forum production of Smith's play, the article presents an array of opinions from performance artists, writers, and critics.
Mitchell, Sean. "The Tangle over Twilight'' in Los Angeles Times, June 12,1994, pp 7, 48.
Mitchell addresses the controversy that arose over the classification of Smith's work as journalism or art.
Schechner, Richard "Anna Deavere Smith: Acting as Incorporation" in the Drama Review, Vol. 37, no 4, Winter, 1993, pp. 63-64.
Schechner describes Smith's method of creating and performing her work as a sort of “shamanism "
Smith, Anna Deavere "Metaphor's Funeral'' on the National Endowment for the Arts website, http://arts endow.gov/ Community/Features/Smith html, January 15,1997. Given as a speech before a meeting of the National Council on the Arts, Smith claims to desire a "theatre that reclaims performance'' and laments the fact that "conversation has collapsed.”
Smith, Anna Deavere. "Not So Special Vehicles" in Performing Arts Journal, Vol. 50/51, May-September, 1995, pp. 77-92.
Printed text of a keynote address delivered m 1993 at a meeting of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education, this speech discusses ethnocentric theater and the danger of "specialness" in the arts
Smith, Ins. "Authors in America: Tony Kushner, Arthur Miller, and Anna Deavere Smith" in Centennial Review, Vol 40, no. 1, Winter, 1996, pp 125-42.
Smith discusses two "models" of theater authorship: the lone author, represented by Miller, and the “theater collective," as represented by Kushner and Smith.
Stuart, Jan "Twilight: Group Therapy for a Nation" in Newsday, March 24,1994.
Stuart reviews the Joseph Papp Public Theater staging of Smith's play, applauding Smith's skill in providing the audience “with a breathtaking collage of real-life people who make us want to stand up and cheer, then sit back down and reflect''
Sun, William H, and Faye C Fei. "Masks or Face Re-Visited: A Study of Four Theatrical Works Concerning Cultural Identity" in Drama Review, Vol 38, no 4, Winter, 1994, pp. 120-32.
This article relates the mask to the problem of ethnic identities in plays and role interpretations Although its focus is on the PBS./lmencan Playhouse televised production of Fires in the Mirror (April 28,1993), it argues that Smith's work has "silenced" the problems of "racial identity in race-specific plays."
Vognar, Chris "Quite an Impression" in the Daily Californian website, http://www dailycal org/Issues/09.29.95/ smith txt, February 16,1997.
A brief tribute to Smith's work, praising her achievement as performance-playwright and her ability to go beyond "mere language and into the realm of the personality and the soul".
Wald, Gayle. "Anna Deavere Smith's Voices at Twilight" in Postmodern Culture, Vol. 4, no. 2, January, 1994. Website at http//jefferson.village Virginia edu/pmc/issue.194/ review- L194.html, January 22,1997.
A review of Twilight, Los Angeles, 1992 as staged at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey, this piece offers an extensive description of Smith's performance technique.
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