Nearly 23 years ago a jury decided that four Los Angeles police officers acted properly in using truncheons to beat the hell out of Rodney King. The riots that ensued killed 53 people. By comparison last summer’s protests over the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner were models of decorum. Yet LA 1992 and Ferguson 2014 are similar in all too many other ways, starting with the rock-bottom, essential fact that the perps then as now were cops, the victims unarmed black men. In telling one story playwright-performer Anna Deavere Smith can’t help but tell both.
Twilight is a documentary work constructed entirely of verbatim quotes pulled from interviews Smith conducted with people who lived through the LA riots. Its genius lies in its comprehensiveness: We meet King’s aunt and the cop who nearly killed her nephew. Activists with 20-megaton chips on their shoulders and a Korean store owner with a bullet lodged in his frontal lobe. Sly congresswoman Maxine Waters and scary/ridiculous police chief Daryl Gates. Cornel West and Gig Young’s fourth wife. We even hear from black opera star Jessye Norman, profoundly, on why she refused to sing at an LA church. Over the course of two and a half hours it’s clear that Smith isn’t peddling anything but the realities of a desperate situation.
And it’s clear too how desperately little has changed. In chilling, ironic anticipation of the Garner case, Smith’s 1994 script includes a discussion of choke holds and how the prohibition against them led LA’s finest to make increased use of nightsticks, the better to break people’s bones.
Smith originally performed Twilight as a solo, but the Other Theatre Co. is presenting it as an ensemble piece for this, its debut production. The six-woman cast does what you might call a bang-up job under Jason Gerace’s direction, using nightsticks of their own as percussion. Though deployed as caricaturists, Danielle Pinnock and Tanya Thai McBride manage to hit comic notes without sacrificing their characters’ humanity; Mary Winn Heider and Carolyn Molloy tend to be quieter but just as effective. Leena Kurishingal would be better with a more certain command of dialects, while Toya Turner is uncommonly strong in one particular role: that of would-be insurrectionist Paul Parker. Perhaps weirdly, perhaps not, Turner’s Parker reminds me of Trip, the grinning, traumatized former slave played by Denzel Washington in the movie Glory.