Let me refresh your memory. March 1991 Rodney King, a black man, was pulled from his car and savagely beaten by four Los Angeles policemen. All of America saw it in grainy video on the evening news. During the ensuing year a frightened Korean convenience store shopkeeper fatally shot a black teenager under the mistaken notion that the younger woman was stealing the orange juice she carried. That incident was captured by the store’s security camera. A young Latino was shot by a sheriff’s deputy setting off a localized riot around a famed public housing project. The Korean shopkeeper was found guilty, but her sentence was light increasing tension in the black community. Another black man, at another housing project, Henry Peco, was fatally shot by LAPD officers.
April 1992 the four officers who beat King were found not guilty after a jury trial in Simi Valley. What began as a large, but peaceful, protest in a South-Central church exploded into a full scale, multiracial, city-wide riot. Gun shots, arson, looting, you name it. “Uprising” is the politically correct term. On the same day a white truck driver, Reginald Denny, was hauled out of his truck, beaten unconscious by a group of blacks. He was saved by four nearby blacks who were watching the event in real time on the news and rushed out to help him. It was an amazing act of bravery and compassion, all captured on film. Driving home from my office I heard shots and saw live embers floating over my house, not far from the burning Radio Shack . What I did not hear were sirens, nor did I hear them that night. It was eerie to say the least. The Chief of Police, Daryl Gates, had gone to a Westside fund raiser, declaring everything was under control. The next day Mayor Bradley declared a city-wide curfew. Two days later President Bush Sr. declared LA a disaster area. In 1992 President Bush ordered a Federal civil rights trial. Charges were brought against the four LAPD officers who had beaten King. The city was tense, fearing the outcome. Only two were found guilty. The city remained tense but quiet. I think it was exhausted.
Anna Deavere Smith had developed a technique of making plays out of a collage of interviews around significant events. The approach has always struck me as almost anthropological. Gordon Davidson, the Artistic Director of the Taper had seen a production of her play about a 1991 race riot in Brooklyn at the Public Theatre. He commissioned Smith to create Twilight and it was staged at the Taper in 1993. The events were fresh in the minds of Angelinos. Smith interviewed and taped over 300 people. She recorded them and used their statements verbatim. In the original production Smith played all parts herself. The characters told their own story in their own words. It was a tour de force of acting. For the current production Director Gregg T. Daniel has cast five players, different ages, different races, different sexes. In 1993 it was often challenging to follow who was speaking. It helped that the events were fresh in viewers’ minds. With Daniel’s race and even sex blind casting the path is foggier. It is a crowded path too. Daniels says he is “aware that the actors will be representing genders, ages, abilities, perspectives, and cultures other than their own. I believe the actors … are capable of doing this with humility, respect, artistry and empathy.” Really? Isn’t the goal to enlighten and engage the audience empathy rather than focus on reading the supra titles projected above? The more public characters are easier to track such as Congresswoman Maxine Waters (Lisa Renee Pitts), Police Commissioner Stanley Sheinbaum (Hugo Armstrong), and the Shopkeeper Soon Ja Du (Jeanne Sakata). In the original Smith would swap characters in and out as she read the crowd. So glad I did not see that production as a critic. Press night for the current production was delayed for additional rehearsal. Not all the kinks have been ironed out.
Equally baffling was the section on the Federal Civil Rights trial. The outrageous Simi Valley verdict rings clear in memory. The subsequent Federal trial? Not so much. Perhaps seen in the first production elaboration would have been unnecessary. Thirty years later, a little more clarity would have helped.
My recollection of the original production is a virtually bare stage. In the current production Efren Delgadillo makes effect use of a montage of images as a backdrop. The opening tape of the Rodney King beating, shown in its entirety, imparts a sense of immediacy that would be impossible to convey any other way. It requires no elaboration to place that beating in a timeline with modern outrages we have viewed such as the Rodney King beating and the subsequent unrest that ensued. They are not profound, but Rodney King’s words echo. “Can’t we all get along?” Apparently not. As creaky as some of the parts of this production are, the message is so strong it still warrants being seen.