CAMBRIDGE – Thirty years ago, four white police officers were acquitted for the beating of black motorist Rodney King. One year later, Anna Deavere Smith interviewed about 350 Los Angelinos for what became wide-ranging verbatim documentary theater entitled “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992.” Recently, in association with New York’s Signature Theatre, she reimagined her 1994 Tony-nominated one-woman show as an ensemble work. Now, with references to the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota (2020) and an extraordinary American Repertory Theater cast under the taut direction of Taibi Magar, her powerful docudrama takes on global as well as area implications.
“Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992” brings together a wide range of views and opinions about the riots (some call them ‘social actions’) that followed the disturbing acquittal. Its title connects to Twilight Bey, a black gang member who became a truce activist. A reference to darkness as first may be alluding to the biblical concept of night preceding day. Twilight may come across as a state of limbo where differences between police, gangs, community leaders, business owners and residences of various races and ethnic origins often seem to struggle to find understanding.
Different interviewees often seem resistant, ambivalent or clueless about such understanding. While L.A. Police Chief Daryl Gates clearly demonstrated a racist policy, L.A. Police Commissioner Stanley K. Sheinbaum could consider the complaints of gang members. Real estate agent Elaine Young vainly saw herself as safe and sound in Beverly Hills, while Hispanic clerk typist Josie Morales admitted to having wanted to testify against the acquitted officers. At one point, a store owner contended that he and fellow Koreans are now dealing with attacks and robberies once committed against Jews. In all of these and other verbatim monologues, “Twilight” makes a compelling case about the formidable challenges presented by prejudice, self-interest and conflicting points of view.
Five gifted actors – Elena Hurst, Wesley T. Jones, Francis Jue, Carl Palmer and Tiffany Rachelle Stewart – adroitly master the challenge of bringing to life a disparate multitude of interviewees. They deliver their monologues with vocal force, vivid expressions and striking body language. Hurst brings proper directness to the insight of L.A. Times journalist Hector Tobar about the growing support among suburbanites for Black Lives Matter; she also captures the exuberance in food and cooking expert Alice Waters’ imagined dinner table talk about racism and hopeful options to overcome it. Jones delivers Bey’s pivotal reflections about a kind of communal limbo and truce efforts with remarkable conviction. Jue electrifyingly brings African-American opera diva Jessye Norman to life in the first act closer (kudos to Linda Cho for elegant costuming here) with her impassioned desire to help in any way that she could. Palmer ranges impressively from antagonistic Gates and ambivalent Sheinbaum to well-intentioned former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley. Stewart is commandingly fiery as black Councilwoman Maxine Waters decrying the racist double standard in police policies and very affecting as Angela King, Rodney King’s aunt.
David Bengali’s inspired projection is a perfect complement to this docudrama.
Although gripping throughout, “Twilight: L.A.,1992” would benefit from trimming in two sections – the somewhat rambling dinner table sequence and the overlong jury room scene for the 1993 civil rights trial. Even so, Smith’s forceful effort – and a very compelling ensemble – bring much-needed light in the fight against systemic racism.
At Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, through Sept. 24. Visit Americanrepertorytheater.org