It’s been 30 years since four LA cops pulled Rodney King from his truck and savagely beat him while he lay prone on the street. It’s been 29 years since riots burned across LA after all four police officers were acquitted on charges related to the beating. And it’s been 27 years since Anna Deveare Smith’s brutal, brilliant documentary play Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 put those events in context.
Yet despite the decades gone by, Fleetwood-Jourdain’s staging of Twilight has only gotten more potent. Watching the production directed by Tim Rhoze as it delves into the protests, riots, and looting that roiled Los Angeles in 1992, a strange sense of déjà vu ensues. As archival news footage flickers in the background, it doesn’t feel like history so much as it feels like right now.
What’s relentlessly clear in Rhoze’s staging of the one-woman, 40+ character drama is that the tragedy encompasses not just King’s beating but the seemingly endless continuum it was part of.
Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992
Through 10/3: Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM, Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes St., Evanston, fjttheatre.com, $25.
It falls to actor Jazzma Pryor to deliver Smith’s formidable script, morphing into utterly disparate characters with only a change in tone, posture, and maybe a hat or a scarf. The characters span race and gender. We hear from the Korean American shopkeeper who was sentenced to a $500 fine and probation after shooting Latasha Harlins, 15, who she thought was trying to boost a container of orange juice. We hear from the white editor of the Los Angeles Times. We hear from Rodney King’s own family, in heartbreaking detail.
Pryor commands the stage with energy and intensity, no matter the character, her words creating a stark, detailed tapestry of violent, unchecked racism.
Rhoze’s set is fascinating and revealing. The first act is all chain-link fencing and graffiti, with messages buried like Easter eggs within the brightly colored, stylized writing. “1619” and “1968” are scrawled prominently, reminders of the year the first slaves were brought to the United States and the year Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered.
In the second act, the graffiti includes tags from the Bloods and the Crips as well as two lists scrawled over the fencing. One is a roster of names, all Black people murdered by white people over the past 130 years. It’s a silent roll call that has the impact of a prolonged scream: Joe Coe, 1891. Julia and Frazier Baker, 1898. Julius Perry, 1920. Emmett Till, 1955. Fred Hampton, 1969. Sandra Bland, 2015. Alton Sterling, 2016. George Floyd, Darius Tarver, Ryan Leroux, 2020. Tory Brown, 2021. “Your Name Here,” 2021.
The second list is of cities where thriving Black communities were destroyed by white mobs: Tulsa, Rosewood, Omaha, East Saint Louis.
Pryor’s indomitable presence provides Twilight with an optimistic perseverance even as the seemingly endless cycle of violence perpetrated by racism shows the staying power of a bloodstain that’s still spreading.
David Duke—who infamously won a seat in the Louisiana State Legislature in 1989—shows up briefly on video in Twilight. The moment is almost nostalgic. Back when Duke won that race, he still seemed to many of us like an outlier, more freak show than substance. We all know now that David Duke wasn’t a flash in the pan. He was part of this country’s long, documented embrace of white supremacy, starting with the Founding Fathers and their codification of a government created for and by white men.
At (nearly) 30, Twilight: Los Angeles remains as forceful as it did when it debuted. Maybe by 40 it will be dated. For now? It’s a must-see.