Anna Deavere Smith Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992
Award: OBIE Award for Best New American Play
Born in 1950, Smith is an American playwright and performer.
Twilight (1993) is comprised of excerpts from interviews Smith conducted with numerous people following the April 1992 race riots in Los Angeles. The disturbance began after four white police officers who had been accused of severely beating a black man, Rodney King, were legally acquitted of any wrongdoing. The following uproar, which lasted for five days, resulted in widespread violence and looting throughout the city. In what is often referred to as her "one-woman show," Smith re-enacts many of the 175 interviews she conducted with various participants, protagonists, and bystanders. Smith performs the words of each character verbatim, assuming over twenty personas over the length of the play. Notable among these are former Los Angeles Police Department chief Daryl F. Gates, who was blamed for willfully ignoring the widespread violence; truck driver Reginald O. Denny, a white man who was severely beaten during the riots; and Maria, a member of the federal civil-rights jury which ultimately found the officers guilty. While Twilight, which is part of Smith's On the Road: A Search for American Character series, has sometimes been regarded more as a work of documentary than of theater, Smith has garnered much praise for her moving, thought-provoking, and realistic depiction of the social and psychological effects of the race riots on a diverse segment of Los Angeles's population. Critic Greg Evans has hailed Smith as a "profound talent" who "gives absolutely equitable and eloquent voice to the myriad communities touched by the riots and to individuals who otherwise would go uncounted."
Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 Summary
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Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 is a one-woman play written by Anna Deveare Smith about the 1992 riots in Los Angeles following the Rodney King verdict. It is based on interviews Smith did with people connected directly and indirectly with the events.
There is no plot, and no set cast of characters. Rather, a single person delivers the monologue taken directly from interviews conducted following the events of 1992. These characters represent a range of personalities both big and small, and a range of backgrounds.
Theresa Allison is the founder of Reclaiming Our Children. She talks about the system of prejudice and violence that plagues many in the Central Los Angeles Area. The Anonymous Man, an unnamed juror at the Rodney King trial, breaks into tears as he talks about his personal conflict with the trial and the letters of support and death threats.
Twilight Bey is a member of the Crips and delivers a monologue about the interplay between light and darkness, a place he calls Limbo. This can be extrapolated as the theme of the whole play. Elaine Brown is a former head of the Black Panther Party and bemoans the fact that the youth took to the street with no plan of action and behaved like a poorly led army.
Allen Cooper is a former gang member and ex-con, who now volunteers in his community. He is sympathetic to the cause of the black man and wonders if Reginald Denny drove his truck into the riots that night to intimidate. Reginald talks about a world in which there is no problem with color and seems surprisingly upbeat and without bitterness despite almost dying in the riots.
Sgt. Charles Duke is a member of the LAPD Special Weapons and Tactics unit and is a defense witness to the four officers. He says that older, banned choke holds were better at subduing criminals and that he tried to ban batons to no avail. Elvira Evers is a woman from Panama who was shot while pregnant during the riots and had to deliver her baby via C-section with a bullet lodged in the baby’s elbow.
Daryl F. Gates was the police chief during that time and resents that he became a symbol of police oppression. Korean immigrant, Mrs. Young-Soon Ha says that she wishes that Koreans and Black Americans could get along better, but they cannot.
Angela King, Rodney’s aunt, compares her family life to that of Carmen. She still seeks justice for her nephew’s beating and is convinced that her phones are tapped, though she can do nothing about it. Maria is a juror for the trial, and she is a lively black woman who details the jurors’ inability to think clearly.
Julio Menjivar is a man from El Salvador who claims to be a bystander though he was rounded up and arrested. Katie Miller claims that the looters were not Black Americans but Hispanics, and she hates that the news makes it seem like looting was justified in poorer sections of the city, but not in the rich white part.
Paul Parker is the chairperson for the Free the L.A. Four Plus Defense Committee. He claims that the nature of the defendants’ race meant that conviction was sought at any cost. He says that there will be no peace for whites while there is no justice for blacks. Rudy Salas Sr. is a partially deaf man of Mexican descent who relishes the fear white people have of black people.
The Second Anonymous man notes that the verdict was unfair and he is saddened by it, admitting to feeling white guilt. Stanley K. Sheinbaum, former president of the LA Police Commission, speaks in two monologues about gangs and having understanding that the gangs are not always the bad guys.
Judith Tur is a ground reporter who feels that the rioters were taking advantage of a chaotic situation. Maxine Waters is a Congresswoman who tells of her irritation with Washington’s lack of empathy for inner city problems. Henry Keith Watson was charged in the beating of Denny and claims that his anger was justified because justice never works.
Scholar Cornel West maintains that part of the issue with inner city is like the Wild West. He also believes that conservatives have kept the work of civil rights in disarray. He discusses the often overlooked plight of the black woman. Elaine Young is a realtor accused of being oblivious to the riots, and this clearly upsets her.
The themes of the play are unrest and lingering resentment over civil issues. The anger and hatred felt by many of the characters in the play over the treatment of black people in LA and the rest of the US, and the white community’s lack of concern over the plight of the inner city spills over in many of the dialogues. It is an unflinching look into the ways that race and economic status shape our experiences.
The playwright also expresses hope for the future. The fear that many citizens experienced during the spillover of violence will hopefully lead to future reconciliations and attempts to be more understanding of different experiences and grievances. Many of the characters reflect this hope, despite the skepticism of others; Reginald Denny even talks of building a room in his house where people can just be people.
Injustice can be a brutal thing to live with from day to day, and the violence of the riots was a discontent that had been brewing for a while. Many of the characters hope that injustice will become justice and victims will be given their day.