Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992

by Anna Deavere Smith

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Actual events provide the focus and stated or implied reference point for all of the monologues that make up Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, The main incidents are the beating of Rodney King; the verdict in the first trial of the LAPD officers involved; the ensuing civil unrest, including the shooting, burning, and looting; the beating of Reginald Denny; the second King trial and verdict; and the hearing and verdict in the L.A. Four trial.

Anger and Hatred Closely related to themes of race and racial prejudice, anger and hatred have a powerful, resonating presence in Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. Some of the persons, like Rudy Salas, Sr., the Mexican artist, seem almost consumed with hatred. His is directed against "gringos," especially white police officers. His anger is shared by others, mostly by inner-city blacks and Latinos who resent the treatment afforded them by the LAPD, what Theresa Allison calls "the hands of our enemy, the unjust system."

Atonement and Forgiveness Some of the more reflective voices in Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 express a prayer or hope that what LA citizens experienced throughout the unrest will give way to a future reconciliation and community harmony and peace among different ethnic groups. It is the "room'' that Reginald Denny plans for his future house, a room that is "just gonna be people," where a person's race will not matter. It is the hope, too, of Otis Chandler, former publisher of the LA Times. He believes that someday LA can become "a safe, pleasant city, for everybody, regardless of where they live or what they do or what the color of their skin is.'' The new harmony would be the community's atonement for the past, and it would have to involve forgiveness.

Others are far more pessimistic, however. There is, for example, Mrs. Young-Soon Han, who believes that racial hatred still burns deeply and can ignite at any time, although, as a Korean, she would like to find a way to live together with blacks. And there are those like Gladis Sibrian, Director of the Farabundo Mart National Liberation Front, who believe that "there is no sense of future, sense of hope that things can be changed.''

Civil Rights The failure of the first Rodney King trial to produce an acceptable verdict led to a second, federal trial on the grounds that the LAPD officers had violated King's civil rights. The issues of civil rights and justice thus lie at the core of the play's matter, and the idea that minority groups have been denied those rights is echoed by various persons. According to Mike Davis, writer and urban critic, the thrust of the civil rights movement was to insure equality for everyone, but, ironically, even privileged whites are losing rights to police-enforced laws that limit such freedoms as movement and the right of assembly. Another figure, Bill Bradley, a U.S. Senator from New Jersey, recounts the experience of a black friend who was stopped by LAPD officers while riding in a car with a white woman. The friend was forced to lie face-down on the ground and was questioned while an officer held a gun to his head. Bradley laments that the "moral power" of the law firm where his friend was interning was not invoked by the firm's partners. Without that moral coercion, the laws that give us all citizens equal rights remain only theoretical.

Class Conflict Although the central conflict associated with the LA turmoil was based in racial divisions, there is clearly a relationship between race relations and economic class, particularly in the distinction between the...

(This entire section contains 1633 words.)

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impoverished inner-city residents "of color'' and wealthy suburban whites. Some of the bitterness of the blacks and Latinos is based on what is perceived as class privilege, not just race. For example, much of Katie Miller's anger is directed against the implicit assumption by the media that the poor people who looted the I. Magnin store on Wilshire Boulevard were "thugs," inferior to the rich people who shopped there. She deplores the "give me your money and get out of my face" attitude of inner-city store owners who lack any respect for their customers.

Fear One response to the LA turmoil was fear, a feeling prevalent among whites but also expressed by many others. The rage that gripped the rioters and looters induced panic in white people like the Hollywood agent (Anonymous Man #2); Elaine Young, the realtor; and the co-ed at the University of Southern California (Anonymous Young Woman). Paula Weinstein, a movie producer, remembers "watching rich white people guard their houses and send their children out of L.A. as if the devil was coming after them." As Owen Smet reports, after the riots, latent fears almost doubled the business of the Beverly Hills Gun Club, because "there's no place safe in LA County, daylight or dark."

Some of the minority people found a positive thing in the fear felt by whites. Rudy Salas, Sr., for example, takes great personal pleasure in the fear that whites have of minorities. Others, like Paul Parker, see the white fear as a catalyst for achieving racial justice.

Guilt and Innocence To some extent, culpability goes hand in hand with fear in Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. As the Hollywood agent remarks, the "victims of the system," the ones burning and looting, "got the short shrift.'' He admits that he "started to absorb a little guilt" for what was happening. Shame also seems to overwhelm the juror in the first Rodney King trial when talking about the KKK letter of support for the jurors.

Too often, though, guilt is deflected through a displacing of personal responsibility. For example, LAPD Chief Daryl Gates, criticized for slipping off to a Republican fund raiser during the crisis, rationalizes his behavior and complains of being victimized as a "symbol of police oppression," despite his excellent record and work he "had done with kids."

Justice and Injustice Many of the figures in Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 talk of justice, especially in the context of victimization. For the blacks, the first Rodney King trial resulted in a travesty of justice, and many others agreed with that assessment, believing the verdict wrong. The civil unrest started from a protest against that injustice. For Theresa Allison and others, the struggle of the inner-city blacks is against injustices largely perpetuated by police brutality. With sad anger, she asks: “Why do they have so much power? Why does the system work for them? Where can we go to get the justice that they have?" These are questions which Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 can simply raise, not answer.

Law and Order The riot erupting in the wake of the verdict in the first Rodney King trial represented a basic breakdown of law and order, as described by Compton Fire Department Captain Lane Hay wood and others. While some officials remark on ways the breakdown could have been anticipated and prevented, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, speaking at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, proclaimed that "whether we like it or not, riot is the voice of the unheard.''

For some, like Julio Menjivar, the efforts to restore law and order involved the misuse of power by both the LAPD and the National Guard, which, he claims, victimized his family and unjustly arrested him. Such complaints against the abuse of power by the police thread through the remarks of many of the inner-city minority speakers. Measured against these, Sergeant Charles Duke's conclusion that the lawlessness arose from improper or inadequate use of force to maintain peace seems tragically discordant.

Prejudice and Tolerance Racial intolerance also threads through the speeches of various persons and is intrinsically bound to other themes. L.A.'s ethnic diversity still lies at the root of some of its problems. Images of white cops and black or Latino victims are common in the accounts, but so too are statements of mutual intolerance voiced by the blacks and Korean Americans. For Paul Parker, the chairperson of the Free the LA Four Plus Committee, "the Koreans was like the Jews,'' store owners from an earlier era, and targets of much of the black rage.

Race and Racism Obviously related to questions of anger and intolerance, racial identity is a very important theme in Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. Implicit in the work is the paradoxical idea that cultural diversity is both a source of a community's discord and its potential strength, a potential that far too few seem to realize. Many of the speakers are racial apologists, defenders of their ethnic heritage, in which they take pride. The dark side of that pride is racial insularity, a powerful impediment to the creation of a community in which race consciousness no longer exists. Spokespersons too easily place blame elsewhere, outside their own race. The shame is that, like Theresa Allison and Michael Zinzun, they are often justified by what happened.

Victim and Victimization A feeling of victimization is ubiquitous in Smith's drama. It lies at the root of all complaints about injustice and is the source of much of the frustration and anger. It is expressed by members of all involved minorities—black, Latino, and Korean. It is, for example, the focus of Mrs. Young-Soon Han's poignant litany. The former owner of a liquor store destroyed in the riots, she complains that "Korean immigrants were left out from society and we were nothing." It is a charge paralleled in the monologues of blacks and Latinos, too. It is sometimes tied to the idea of revenge, justifying the carnage of the rioting. That is the message of Paul Parker, for example, and it is the warning of Congresswoman Maxine Waters, who insists that people who have "been dropped off everybody's agenda" will grow angry and take to the streets to vent their anger and frustration.