"Twilight: Los Angeles 1992," Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles, Mar. 8 – Apr. 9, 2023
Mar. 26, 2023 | By Bruce R. Feldman
In Brief: Twilight unpacks issues of systemic racism, class division, inequality, anger, hatred, frustration, fear, justice, and injustice that came to the fore in the aftermath of the Rodney King beating by four Los Angeles police officers in 1991. Using the actual words of participants, observers, politicians, activists, and ordinary citizens, this forthright production implicitly leads viewers to ask ourselves some thirty years later if anything has changed.
Not a play in any conventional sense, Twilight: Los Angeles 1992 is a series of candid testimonies to the King beating and city-wide rioting the following year. Anna Deavere Smith conducted 320 interviews and shaped about three dozen of them into a powerful, illuminating narrative which she first presented in a one-person show, playing all the characters, at the Taper in 1993.
The witnesses Smith sought out reflected a wide range of views, experiences, grievances.
Some were to be expected: Ted Briseno, one of the four officers who beat King, remorseful not so much for the assault as for disappointing his children; Los Angeles Police Commissioner Stanley Sheinbaum; Congresswomen Maxine Watters; several of the jurors; Reginald Denny, the white truckdriver pulled out of his vehicle and beaten by four blacks; King’s aunt who gave a humanizing account of a time when the two went fishing; Police Chief Daryl Gates, who attended a fundraiser the night the King verdict was announced, acquitting the officers and leading to a wave of further destruction and violence that became known as the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
Some were members of demoralized Hispanic and Korean communities: the Los Angeles Times columnist Hector Tobar; Walter Park, shot when his Korean Town store was ransacked; academic Dr. Elaine Kim; sculptor and painter Rudy Salas, Sr., who had been beaten by the police in the 1940s and still harbored a hatred for whites.
Other witnesses Smith chose were not so obvious: an anonymous Hollywood talent agent, who on the day the rioting broke out went to his lunch at The Grill in Beverly Hills where “it was business as usual”; former NRA president Charlton Heston, describing how his liberal friends asked him for weapons to protect their homes; and, perhaps most surprising of all, celebrity realtor Elaine Young, who when restaurants were closed throughout the Southland headed for the Beverly Hills Hotel, where she found it “mobbed” with other movie people.
The current production, efficiently directed by Gregg T. Daniel, has been lightly revised and deviates from the original in just one significant aspect. Five actors now portray the thirthy or so characters, making the evening a bit less compelling than when we watched Smith herself convincingly inhabit all the differing personalities.
"Twilight" asks viewers to ask ourselves some thirty years later if anything has changed.
Nonetheless, this cast is terrific, bringing life to members of their own and other races of both sexes, along with community activists, society figures, news reporters, and others. Jeanne Sakata as Charlton Heston is particularly memorable, as is Sabina Zúñiga Varela as Rudy Salas. Also outstanding: Lisa Reneé Pitts as a pregnant bystander who gets shot in the belly. Both she and the baby thankfully survived, and the actor’s account is a rare moment of tenderness and grace in the otherwise disturbing chronicle that Smith puts before us.
Smith blends the conflicting admissions she collected into a lumpy batter that she knows will not come out well. The sick feeling we get as we rotate through these testimonies tells us that we know it, too.
At the beginning of Act 2, the social critic Cornel West explains the difference between optimism and hope. Optimism occurs when you have tallied up the facts and see light at the end of the tunnel. Hope is the hail Mary pass you make when there’s no indication of a good outcome.
Smith bookends the act with the evening’s final admission from former gang member and truce organizer Twilight Bey. We are stuck in limbo, a kind of perpetual twilight between light and darkness, he says. We haven’t achieved justice and equality yet. It’s anyone’s guess if we ever will.
“Twilight: Los Angeles 1992,” Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles (213) 628-2772, www.centertheatregroup.org