By Matthew Nerber
What is it they say about history and being doomed to repeat it?
In 1965, the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles was subject to one of the worst riots in the history of the United States. Stores were looted. Buildings were burned, and over 30 people lost their lives. The inciting incident? A young Black man was pulled over by LAPD for reckless driving, and after a brief confrontation, was subjected to beating by baton.
Nearly three decades after Watts, on April 29, 1992, jurors found four white police officers not guilty in the brutal beating of Rodney King, a 25-year-old Black man who had been struck over 50 times by police batons after a high speed chase through Los Angeles. The ensuing riot, and its physical, emotional and cultural legacy is the subject of Anna Deavere Smith’s groundbreaking play “Twilight: Los Angeles,” originally written and performed by Smith in 1994. As presented by Syracuse Stage as a virtual performance –– directed by Steve H. Broadnax III and performed by Patrese D. McClain –– it is a keenly observed reminder of just how cyclical our national history has become.
Smith’s original work captured the cross section of a city that was the perfect powder keg for these riots to erupt. As a piece of “documentary theater,” Smith’s greatest triumph with “Twilight: Los Angeles” was in the collecting of dozens of interviews from subjects across the cultural spectrum, and then using their words — verbatim — to construct her poetic, panoramic vision. From the residents of the neighborhoods damaged the most during the violence and the police officers involved in King’s beating, to a wealthy denizen hiding amongst the Hollywood elite at the Beverly Hills Hotel during the riot, the totality of points of view in the piece remains astonishing.
Smith’s gift as a journalist is apparent throughout. Her subjects speak off the cuff in revealing anecdotes –– hearing from Reginald Denny, a truck driver caught in the middle of the riots and almost beaten to death, or Daryl Gates, the Los Angeles chief of police who was attending a fundraiser just as the riots were heating up, is essential in understanding the complex social structure being interrogated here.
For the Syracuse Stage production, footage of the riots, both bloody and harrowing, is interspersed with footage from contemporary parallels, like the shocking video of George Floyd’s final moments or the terrifying footage of police clashing with protesters in Chicago last summer, those images now etched into the public consciousness just like Rodney King.
“Twilight: Los Angeles” operates as a solo-piece; the two dozen or so characters are portrayed by a single actor. McClain, who performs on a single, green screen covered set, manages to give life to each new person with an impressive clarity. The performer’s role in this type of theater is to drop into the emotional reality of the subjects and draw a line between the larger cultural moments and the individual stories. Switching between costumes –– a pinstripe suit, for instance, or the elegant attire of an opera singer –– McClain handles each new subject with ease, and more important, empathy.
And with the use of the green screen, the production allows the performer to be instantaneously put into a new space –– a theater, an apartment, a real estate office. And during a nearly three-hour performance, innovation is key in order to keep the audience’s attention centered squarely on the story. It’s unfortunate, then, that McClain’s performance happens almost exclusively with her seated in a chair. It’s clear the production is operating under space limitations, but the static performance flattens the theatricality. And the use of video cutting, which feels equivalent to a light shift or quick blackout, removes some of the thrill of watching one performer tackle all of these roles in real time.
Though at key moments, McClain switches between characters on screen –– such as switching between Charles Lloyd (the defense attorney for Soon Ja Du, who killed Latasha Harlins, a young Black girl, in an incident that set the stage for the riots), an impassioned community activist and a Korean liquor store owner. It’s during these quick changes that the theatricality of the piece is momentarily restored. A simple switch of a cap or a jacket, or the gesture of a button-up shirt thrown open, is a thrilling reminder of live performance.
Smith revisited her play in 2000, with a filmed version of “Twilight: Los Angeles” for PBS. On tape, her performance crackles with movement and tension –– the filmmaker Marc Levin uses cluttered sets and a roaming camera to match Smith’s electricity.
McClain is operating on a more subdued level — her performances occasionally pop off the screen with a vocal caricature or gesture, but more often than not she relies on the words, the true accounts of Smith’s subjects, to do the heavy lifting. McClain’s quieter moments, such as when portraying one of the devastated jurors publicly ridiculed and tormented after the acquittal of the police officers, are amongst the piece’s most moving interludes.
Director Broadnax smartly leans into the intimacy this medium allows for and massages these small moments to great effect.
Footage of the riots can speak for itself. Because the reality is that the city of Los Angeles was thrown into complete chaos –– people were pulled out of their cars, beaten within an inch of their lives, and it was broadcast on live television. It is footage that transcends politics or culture wars, revealing the worst sides of our humanity. Terrifying and harrowing, the cumulative feeling of watching these tapes today is one of unending chaos, of a cyclical boiling point spilling over. Because, three decades later, we are witnessing the same story. Just like 1992, 2020 was an election year defined by police brutality and American citizens being killed in the streets of our great American cities. Add the compounding effect of the virus and our collective isolation and the virtual nature of the piece adds layers of meaning.
People are still angry. The racial tension between Blacks and whites has not dissolved. Smith understood that the enduring legacy must be heard, never forgotten, never understood to be of the past, but rather a necessary thread of our present. With this documentary style, letting the people who were there tell their own truth, Smith manages to capture the mood of a moment and recreate it onstage, with all its frustrations and contradictions. As a piece of theater it is a reminder that complex, well-told stories have the power to re-teach us the things we have forgotten. And with this new production, Syracuse Stage has managed to do the same — as a cultural document, “Twilight: Los Angeles” remains invaluable.
Matthew Nerber is an arts journalism student at the Newhouse School