Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992

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Editors: David M. Galens and Lynn M. Spampinato
Date: 1998
Drama for Students
From: Drama for Students(Vol. 2. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay; Play explanation; Work overview; Character overview; Biography; Plot summary
Pages: 21
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Page 233

Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992


Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 is the fourteenth part of Anna Deavere Smith’s work in progress, On the Road: A Search for American Character, begun in 1983. The play’s unifying focus is the civil unrest in Los Angeles following the April, 1992, verdict in the first Rodney King trial, presented from the perspective of the wide range of persons that Smith interviewed. The actress-playwright interprets a limited number of these actual people in her solo performances, editing and rearranging her raw material as she deems appropriate.

Although she conducted about 175 interviews for the project, in her one-woman performances Smith limits her dramatis personae to between twenty-five and forty-five personalities, depending on her production venue. Her choices have varied as Smith has worked on her command of the diverse people that she represents.

Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 began its premier run on May 23, 1993, in Los Angeles, at the Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum, which had commissioned the work. It received almost unanimous critical acclaim, and it has since gained favorable notice in subsequent productions in Princeton, New Jersey, and in New York, Washington, D. C., and London, England. It has also garnered several honors, including Obie, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle awards and two Antoinette Perry nominations.

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Although Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 was also nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, the Pulitzer jury disqualified it on the grounds that it was not fictional and could only be performed by the interviewer-playwright herself. More than anything else, that decision reflects a critical inability to pigeonhole the work into some familiar category. The play’s kinship with the documentary is unquestioned, but it simply escapes any easy classification. Its intention is clear, however; the piece documents a critical time of racial division and civil unrest, not to place blame for what happened, but to help the process of healing through a kaleidoscopic and sympathetic rendering of different viewpoints.


In On the Road: A Search for American Character, the series of plays to which Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 belongs, Anna Deavere (Duh-veer) Smith set out, as she says, “to capture the personality of a place by attempting to embody its varied population and varied points of view in one person—myself.” Her series is a work-in-progress, its aim being the isolation of the American character through the dramatization of its many voices, the “different people” who “are shaping it.” But her quest is partly a voyage of self-discovery, too, a shaping of her own role as a black woman writer, actress, and teacher.

Anna Deavere Smith was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on September 18, 1950, the oldest child of Deavere Smith and Anna Young Smith. Her father owned a coffee and tea business, and her mother was an elementary school principal. During her early years, Anna’s upbringing was largely restricted to a segregated community, giving her few opportunities to meet the various kinds of people that she would later depict in her plays. However, she did sharpen one skill for which she seemed to have a natural gift—mimicry. That talent earned her a reputation as a bit of a mischief maker, though she never got in any serious trouble.

It was not until she attended Western High School that she began making friends with people of different ethnic backgrounds, especially the Jewish schoolmates whom she befriended. She has credited that school experience with giving her the sympathy necessary to depict persons with diverse ethnic and cultural heritages in her work. That sympathy remained latent but strong after she graduated from Western in 1967.

Smith continued her education at Beaver College in Glenside, Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia. She first studied linguistics, but grew increasingly restless with the academic regimen in the face of the domestic strife of the late 1960s. She did graduate from Beaver, but did not really begin to find her professional niche until she inadvertently began taking acting classes at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. While apprenticing as an actor and director in that city’s theaters, Smith earned an M.F.A. from the Conservatory, then moved to New York, where she supported herself by working for KLM Airlines and taking bit parts in soap operas.

In 1978, Smith took a position as a drama teacher at Carnegie-Mellon University, in Pittsburgh. It was there that she began developing her fundamental technique of characterization. She sought a way to free herself from the “method school of acting” that stressed the internalization of a role through the process of identifying with the character. She turned, instead, to the more objective method of depicting real people, an idea that came to her when watching Johnny Carson interview a series of diverse guests on the Tonight Show. She began taping interviews to challenge her acting students with the task of impersonating the speech and verbal mannerisms of the interviewed subjects.

Smith’s interview method and her interest in American diversity led, in 1983, to the start of her main work, On the Road: A Search for American Character. Smith has also pursued an acting and teaching career that has taken her to several cities and several schools, including New York University, Yale University, the University of Southern California, and Stanford University, in Palo Alto, California, where she has served on the theater faculty since 1990. She has appeared in secondary roles in major films and taken her one-woman shows across America. She has also won several prizes and awards, including Tony and Obie awards and, in 1996, a much-coveted MacArthur Foundation fellowship.


In the conventional sense, Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 has no plot or story line at all. The work Page 235  |  Top of Articleconsists of a series of monologues, the words of real persons interpreted by Smith in her dual role as playwright-performer. The monologues are edited redactions made up from interviews that Smith conducted in the aftermath of the events that seriously divided the Los Angeles community in the wake of the Rodney G. King beating on the night of March 3, 1991.

Anna Deavere Smith Anna Deavere Smith Getty Images

The playwright, to remind both her audiences and her readers of the issues, provides a “Time Line” in production playbills and the published work. The Time Line is a chronological outline of the important events referenced by the various voices in the play. It is that which provides the “story.” The major occurrences from that Time Line are summarized below.

1991: March 3-15

On March 3, after stopping King for speeding, members of the LAPD (Los Angeles Police Department) severely beat and arrest him. George Holiday, a nearby resident, captures the episode on video tape and distributes it to television networks, which repeatedly show it in broadcast news. Three days later, LAPD Chief Daryl F. Gates calls the King beating an “aberration” as the community clamors for his resignation. King is released from custody, and on March 15, four LA policemen-—Sergeant Stacey Koon and officers Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind, and Theodore Briseno—are charged with a felony and arraigned for their part in the beating.

1991: March 15-26

On the night of March 15, fifteen-year-old Latasha Harlins, an African-American girl, is shot to death by Korean-American Soon Ja Du in a South LA liquor outlet. On March 26, on the same day that the four officers charged in the King beating enter an innocent plea, Soon Ja Du is arraigned for murder.

1991: April 1-July 22

On April 1, Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley empowers a special commission under Warren Christopher to investigate the LAPD. Three days later, the LA Police Commission places Gates on leave, but he is immediately reinstated by the City Council. On April 7, Gates takes disciplinary action against the four indicted officers, firing Wind and suspending the other three. The Christopher Commission releases its report on July 9, recommending

that Gates and the whole Police Commission resign. On July 16, the Police Commission orders Gates to reinstate his assistant chief, David D. Dotson, whom Gates had forced to step down after Dotson complained of the chief’s failures to discipline police officers. About a week later, Gates announces his intention of retiring in 1992.

1991: July 23-November 15

On July 23, the Second District Court of Appeal orders a change of trial venue for the four LAPD officers charged in the King case. Some two months later, the prosecution in the trial of Soon Ja Du begins presenting its case. On October 11, the court finds Soon guilty of involuntary manslaughter. A month later, on November 15, she is sentenced to five years’ probation, four-hundred hours of community service and a $500 fine.

1991: November 26-29

Judge Stanley Weisberg names Simi Valley in Ventura County as the Rodney King trial venue. Three days later, on November 29, LAPD officers kill a black man, leading to a confrontation with about a hundred housing-project residents in the Watts area of LA.

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A playbill from the Cort Theatre for Smiths play A playbill from the Cort Theatre for Smith’s play

1992: February 3-April 29

Pretrial motions precede the actual trial of the four LAPD officers in the Rodney King case, which begins with opening arguments on March 4, before a jury lacking a single African-American. Two weeks later the prosecution rests its arguments. On April 13, Briseno admits that King was never a threat to the arresting officers. Meanwhile, on April 16, Willie L. Williams is named as Gates’s successor as police commissioner. On April 23, the King-trial jury begins its deliberations, returning a verdict on April 29. The officers are found innocent, except for one charge against Officer Powell for the excessive use of force. The verdict, which results in a mistrial, is widely publicized on television.

The feared reaction comes the same day. A peaceful protest rally of over two-thousand people at a South-Central LA church breaks into violence, spreading in a widening circle of shootings, beatings, and looting. Vandalism eventually leads to arson, engulfing a large section of central LA in fire. Reginald Denny, a white truck driver, is pulled from his cab and severely beaten in an episode caught on video tape and broadcast on television. LA Mayor Bradley declares a local emergency, and Governor Pete Wilson orders out the National Guard.

1992: April 30-May 11

On the next day, April 30, Bradley imposes a curfew for the whole of LA, but the looting and burning of stores continues in various sections of the city as the violent protest continues. Meanwhile, the Justice Department announces its intent to investigate further the possible violation of Rodney King’s civil rights.

Beginning on May 1, the LA community tries to restore order. A peace rally draws over a thousand persons, mostly Korean-Americans. On May 2, city crews start the clean-up, while volunteers carry food and clothing into the devastated areas. Thirty thousand residents march in Koreatown, calling for an end to racial discord.

On May 3, the Los Angeles Times announces the toll paid by the community: 58 dead, almost 2,400 injured, over 12,000 arrested, 3,100 businesses damaged. By May 4, with National Guard troops patrolling the streets, LA citizens start back to work and school, but some cannot return because looted and vandalized businesses remain closed. LAPD officers begin rounding up illegal immigrants suspected of looting or other riot-related crimes. LA officials turn suspects over to the Immigration and Naturalization Service for deportation.

On May 8, the troops begin withdrawing from LA, while the Crips and Bloods, two major LA gangs, agree to truce terms. Three days later, the LA Board of Police Commissioners names William H. Webster to chair a commission created to study the LAPD’s response during the riots.

1992: May 12-December 14

On May 12, three of the “L A Four”—Damian Williams, Antoine Miller, and Henry Watson—are arrested for the April 29 beating of Reginald Denny. Gary Williams surrenders to the LAPD later on the same day. The L A Four are arraigned on May 21, charged with thirty-three violations for their attacks on thirteen motorists, including Denny. Meanwhile, various demonstrations continue. On May 25, Korean grocers meet with leaders of the Bloods and Crips to fashion an alliance. On May 30, Gates resigns at Chief of the LAPD and Willie Williams takes his place.

Over the summer and into December, protests continue, but violence is minimal. In October, the Webster Commission concludes that the LAPD’s internal problems inhibited a quick response to the civil unrest. In the same month, the Black-Korean alliance breaks off, and on December 14, trouble Page 237  |  Top of Articleerupts again when the Free the L A Four Defense Committee demonstrates at the site of the Denny beating.

1993: January 22-August 4

On January 23, ten charges against the L A Four are dismissed, but not the charge of attempted murder. Shortly thereafter, on February 3, the King civil rights trial of the four LAPD officers begins; it concludes two months later, on April 17. Briseno and Wind are acquitted. However, Powell and Koon are found guilty, and on August 4 are sentenced to a thirty-month term in federal prison.

1993: August 19-December 7

On August 19, the trial of the L A Four begins. It lasts about three months, although the final arguments begin early on, in late September. Jury problems force a verdict delay, as Judge Ouderkirk has to dismiss two jurors in early October. Convictions follow on October 18. Although acquitted of the more serious charges, on December 7, Damian Williams is sentenced to a maximum prison term of ten years for his attack on Denny.


Character Introduction

Although Smith interviewed about 175 people in her research for Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, in the published work containing their monologues she includes just under a third of them. In any given performance of her play, she further limits the number of persons depicted but had included some who are not in the published work. An example is Maria, Juror #7 in the second Rodney King trial, who was interviewed and added to the Mark Taper Forum production of the play two weeks after it opened. Another example is the opera diva Jessye Norman.

There is actually no set cast of characters in Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. As she deems appropriate, Smith selects the cast from her gallery of choices both to fit her specific audience and her artistic aims of the moment.

Theresa Allison

The founder of Mothers Reclaiming our Children (Mothers ROC), Theresa Allison is also the mother of gang-truce negotiator Dewayne Holmes. She explains that her organization started after the

Sidebar: HideShow


  • As of the spring of 1997, among Smith’s plays making up her On the Road series, only Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities had been produced for media presentation. However, since her success with Twilight and Fires, Smith has appeared on television and radio as speaker, debate moderator, and interviewed guest. She has also taken supporting roles in major films, including Mrs. Travis in Dave (1993), produced by Warner Bros., and Anthea Burton in Philadelphia (1993), produced by Tri-Star.
  • Fires in the Mirror was directed by George C. Wolfe for PBS’s American Playhouse and aired on television in April, 1993, featuring Smith in solo performance; video is available from the Public Broadcasting System (PBS).

killing of her nephew, Tiny, who was shot in the face. She speaks of the unjust system, and her belief that Tiny was actually shot by officers dressed as gang members, two of whom she calls “Cagney and Lacey.” She recalls the day of the shooting as looking “like the crucifixion of Jesus.” It was a day, too, that changed some happy people to “hurting people.” She goes on to tell how her son, Dewayne, was arrested and how she and her friends surrounded the police cruiser, fearful that the cops wanted to kill him. He was set free but was marked thereafter and was eventually picked up and sentenced for a crime that Theresa insists he did not commit.

Anonymous man

An unnamed white juror in the first Rodney King trial, this soft-spoken man breaks into tears as he recalls his ambivalent feelings about the verdict and its aftermath. He speaks of the personal confusion and the threats on his life. Most agonizing was a letter received from the KKK offering the jurors its support and extending an offer of membership. Page 238  |  Top of ArticleThat invitation shamed the man and left him remorseful.

Twilight Bey

A slight, graceful young black, Twilight Bey is a member of the Crips gang and one of the organizers of the truce between the Crips and the Bloods, a rival gang. He speaks very confidently of his youth, as a community “watchdog,” and of the significance of his name as indicating that he has “twice the knowledge of those my age.” He relates his name to the idea of limbo, as somehow being caught in a place ahead of his time, and he talks about what he sees at night, the drug-addicted “walking dead” and the young kids beating up elderly people at bus stops. He is also the titular character of the play, partly because what he says about limbo—a place between darkness and understanding—is an appropriate thematic metaphor for the entire work.

Big Al

See Allen Cooper

Elaine Brown

A woman in her early fifties, Elaine Brown is the former head of the Black Panther Party and author of A Taste of Power. She grieves over the fact that the protesters took to the street with no plan, just rage. She says that commitment must be based “not on hate but on love,” and that change cannot be brought about by a “piss-poor, ragtag, unorganized, poorly armed” and “poorly led army.”

Allen Cooper

A large, ex-gang member and former convict, Big Al is an activist in the nation-wide truce movement. He offers a defensive litany on life in the LA ghetto, where even a bubble gum machine packs a gun and nothing spells trouble ‘til the black man gets his hands on it.” He repeatedly says, “You gotta look at history, baby.” He sees the African American as victim, and questions whether Reginald Denny might have driven his truck into the black neighborhood as an “intimidation move.”

Reginald O. Denny

Reginald Denny, the white truck driver beaten and shot at during the LA riot, describes what little he remembers of the experience. He is “upbeat” and “speaks loudly.” He admits to being unaware of the King verdict and its aftermath until visitors came to speak with him at the Daniel Freeman Hospital. He talks about Jesse Jackson, Arsenio Hall, and the four people who rescued him—Titus, Bobby, Terry, and Lee—with whom he feels “a weird common thread in our lives.” He describes what he has seen on video tapes and what his rescuers have told him. He talks about a room in a future house that will be a memorial, “a happy room,” one where “there won’t be a color problem.” Denny seems hopeful and remarkably free of bitterness.

Sergeant Charles Duke

Sergeant Charles Duke is a member of the LAPD Special Weapons and Tactics Unit and a defense witness in both trials of the officers who beat Rodney King. Duke explains that Officer Laurence Powell mishandled his baton while beating Rodney King, making his blows weak and ineffective. He laments that “upper-body control holds” were outlawed in 1982 as inhumane, even though they provided a better method of subduing suspects on drugs. He relates, too, that he had tried to find alternatives to the use of batons but was rebuked for his efforts. He believes that Chief Daryl Gates wanted to provoke a law suit to prove that the City Council and Police Commission had made a mistake in banning older choke holds techniques.

Elvira Evers

Elvira Evers is a Panamanian woman, who, during the rioting, while pregnant, is shot and taken by ambulance to St. Francis Hospital. Doctors operate to trace the bullet’s course and deliver her baby girl via Caesarean section. The baby has the bullet lodged in her elbow, but it is successfully removed. Describing the events, Elvira remains remarkably unemotional.

Daryl F. Gates

Daryl F. Gates, Chief of the LAPD during the rioting, attempts to explains his absence from his post after the verdict in the first Rodney King trial. He was meeting with a group opposed to Proposition F, but claims to have been in constant contact with his office. He admits that he should have left immediately, but doubts that his presence in LA would have mattered. “I should have been smarter,” he confesses, but primarily because he gave his critics ammunition to use against him. He resents having become “the symbol of police oppression in the United States,” and finds it very unjust.

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Mrs. Young-Soon Han

A Korean immigrant and former owner of a liquor store, Mrs. Han angrily remarks on the treatment and status of Korean Americans. She bitterly argues that black Americans fare better, and then talks of justice and violence. Although she wishes that Asians and blacks could live together, she sees “too much differences” preventing community peace and harmony—a fire that “canuh burst out anytime.”

Angela King

Angela King, the aunt of Rodney King, in a relatively long monologue, relates her unsettled family life to the film Carmen, starring Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte. She discusses her closeness with her brother, Rodney’s father, recalling childhood anecdotes. She explains that they were raised without racial hatred and that now she seeks justice for the beating of her nephew. She is particulary upset by the defendants’ lack of remorse and the efforts of the authorities “to make you look bad to the people.” She is convinced her phone is tapped but that there is nothing she can do about it.


Juror #7 in the second Rodney King trial, Maria, a lively black woman, gives a no-holds-arred account of her fellow jurors, whom she nmercifully parodies as “brain-dead.” She gives hilarious description of the group’s interactive Workings as they strive to cooperate in their joint bligation as jurors.

Julio Menjivar

A native of El Salvador, Julio Menjivar is a man n his late twenties. A bystander, he describes the arrival and behavior of the National Guard during the unrest, claiming that guardsmen almost shot his mother, sister, and wife, then rounded the residents up and hauled them by bus to jail. He describes his fright, his prayers, and his unhappiness with having a criminal record.

Katie Miller

A big black woman with a powerful voice, Katie Miller claims that the looters and vandals in Koreatown were not blacks but Mexicans. Although she did not engage in looting, she went “touring” with friends after the rioting. She is sarcastic and very angry with local newscaster Paul Moyer because he called the looters of an I. Magnin store “thugs.” She is outraged because the media seem to suggest that looting in the poor sections of LA was vindicated, but not in “a store that rich people go to.”

Paul Parker

Paul Parker, the Chairperson of the Free the L.A. Four Plus Defense Committee, argues that the defendants charged with attacking Reginald Denny were victimized because it was a black-on-white affair, and that the authorities would go “any extremes necessary” to gain a conviction. He takes intense pride in his African-American heritage, and warns that as long as there is no justice for blacks, there will be no peace for whites.

Rudy Salas, Sr.

Rudy Salas, Sr., a sculptor and painter, is a large man of Mexican descent. Partly deaf, he wears a hearing aid in both ears. His deafness resulted from a police beating back in the 1940s. Rudy retains hatred for “gringo” policemen and other whites, whom he refers to as “my enemy.” He calls the feeling “insanity,” and knows it is a waste, but he can not help it. He is convinced that whites fear “people of color,” and he relishes their discomfort. He indicates that his hatred has been fortified by the experiences of his sons.

Second anonymous man

This well-dressed, handsome man, an unidentified Hollywood agent, starts out by remarking that the anticipated unrest from the King trial verdict did not at first dampen his “business as usual” activities. He noted the gossip and tension among his white, upper-middle class associates, but panic did not set in until the rioting began, when the flight of working whites from downtown LA lacked only “Godzilla behind them.” He admits that the verdict was unfair, and that he started to “absorb a little guilt.” He was saddened by the television coverage showing people destroying their own neighborhoods.

Stanley K. Sheinbaum

Stanley K. Sheinbaum, former president of the LA Police Commission, is seventy-three, with “the smile and laugh of a highly spirited, joyous, old woman.” He speaks in two monologues In the first, he talks of “these curious people,” the gang members at a truce meeting he had witnessed with Congress woman Maxine Walters. He is troubled by the assumption that the gangs are always the enemy, and that he must be on a side that prevents understanding. Page 240  |  Top of ArticleIn the second monologue, he recalls driving downtown after the King verdict and seeing a black woman driving on the freeway holding a hammer in her hand, which spelled “trouble.” He recalls encountering Chief Daryl Gates leaving the police garage as he arrived, then being inside LAPD headquarters when the first rock came through a plate-glass window.

Judith Tur

A ground reporter, Judith Tur gives a running commentary on the beating of Reginald Denny as video taped from a helicopter by John and Marika Tur. She describes the event as “like being in a war zone,” and becomes very angry at the “real brave men” who beat and tried to shoot Denny. She tells of her own hard life to explain why she has little sympathy for the rioters, who, she charges, are “really taking advantage.”

Maxine Waters

Maxine Waters is a U. S. Representative from the 35th District in California, representing South-Central LA. She is an “elegant” woman and powerful orator. She vents her anger with Washington’s insensitivity to inner-city problems and describes how she crashed an exclusive White House meeting on the issue to speak her mind to President Bush.

Henry Keith Watson

One of the L.A. Four accused in the attack on Reginald Denny, Keith Watson, twenty-nine, escaped punishment when acquitted in the subsequent trial in October of 1993. Defending his anger and the burning and looting of the rioters, he says that “justice didn’t work.”

Cornel West

A scholar, Cornel West relates the civil turmoil to analogous issues, including the frontier and the gunfighter and the “deep machismo ethic” of a “gangsterous orientation” seen in the character of Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo and rap music. He argues that blacks are “playing exactly the same game,” attempting to “outbrutalize the police brutality.” He notes that black women remain subjugated because of the machismo and laments the end of the Black Panther movement and the loss of the “internationalism and multiracialism” that it represented. He maintains that “conservative forces” have held the civil rights movement in disarray.

Elaine Young

An experienced realtor, Elaine Young has sold many homes to Hollywood stars. She has also received publicity because of her problems with silicone implants. During the rioting, fearful of being alone, she goes to the Beverly Hills Hotel, staying until early morning on three consecutive days. After being interviewed at the Polo Lounge, she receives an accusative letter from a man who calls her “a dumb shit bimbo” for her flippant lack of concern over the unrest. That clearly upsets her.


Actual events provide the focus and stated or implied reference point for all of the monologues that make up Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. The main incidents are the beating of Rodney King; the verdict in the first trial of the LAPD officers involved; the ensuing civil unrest, including the shooting, burning, and looting; the beating of Reginald Denny; the second King trial and verdict; and the hearing and verdict in the L.A. Four trial.

Anger and Hatred

Closely related to themes of race and racial prejudice, anger and hatred have a powerful, resonating presence in Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. Some of the persons, like Rudy Salas, Sr., the Mexican artist, seem almost consumed with hatred. His is directed against “gringos,” especially white police officers. His anger is shared by others, mostly by inner-city blacks and Latinos who resent the treatment afforded them by the LAPD, what Theresa Allison calls “the hands of our enemy, the unjust system.”

Atonement and Forgiveness

Some of the more reflective voices in Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 express a prayer or hope that what LA citizens experienced throughout the unrest will give way to a future reconciliation and community harmony and peace among different ethnic groups. It is the “room” that Reginald Denny plans for his future house, a room that is “just gonna be people,” where a person’s race will not matter. It is the hope, too, of Otis Chandler, former publisher of the LA Times. He believes that someday LA can become “a safe, pleasant city, for everybody, regardless

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Sidebar: HideShow


  • Investigate the controversy that arose in 1991, when a white actor, Johnathan Pryce, was chosen for the lead role in the Broadway production of Alan Boublil and Claude-Michel Shonberg’s musical Miss Saigon (1989). Relate the controversy to Smith’s practice in her one-woman interpretations of racially diverse characters.
  • Research the influence of the Los Angeles civil unrest and subsequent events such as the O. J. Simpson murder trial in debates over the need to reform the American jury-trial system.
  • Investigate the causes and effects of the riots in the Watts district of Los Angeles in the summer of 1965 and the subsequent report of the Kerner Commission. Relate your findings to the civil unrest resulting from the Rodney King trial in 1992.
  • Research the role of Anna Deavere Smith in the controversy arising from August Wilson’s keynote speech before the Theatre Communications Group in June 1996, in which the celebrated playwright argued the need of a separate and autonomous black American theater.
  • Investigate the influence of the Los Angeles disturbances of 1992 on popular and underground culture, including “gangsta rap” and politically-incorrect humor.
  • Investigate the depiction of ethnically-mixed, inner-city neighborhoods in recent film and media treatments, including Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989).
  • Investigate the excessive use of force over the last decade by law enforcement agencies in Los Angeles or any other large American city and what steps have been taken, if any, to rectify the problem.

of where they live or what they do or what the color of their skin is.” The new harmony would be the community’s atonement for the past, and it would have to involve forgiveness.

Others are far more pessimistic, however. There is, for example, Mrs. Young-Soon Han, who believes that racial hatred still burns deeply and can ignite at any time, although, as a Korean, she would like to find a way to live together with blacks. And there are those like Gladis Sibrian, Director of the Farabundo Mart National Liberation Front, who believe that “there is no sense of future, sense of hope that things can be changed.”

Civil Rights

The failure of the first Rodney King trial to produce an acceptable verdict led to a second, federal trial on the grounds that the LAPD officers had violated King’s civil rights. The issues of civil rights and justice thus lie at the core of the play’s matter, and the idea that minority groups have been denied those rights is echoed by various persons. According to Mike Davis, writer and urban critic, the thrust of the civil rights movement was to insure equality for everyone, but, ironically, even privileged whites are losing rights to police-enforced laws that limit such freedoms as movement and the right of assembly. Another figure, Bill Bradley, a U.S. Senator from New Jersey, recounts the experience of a black friend who was stopped by LAPD officers while riding in a car with a white woman. The friend was forced to lie face-down on the ground and was questioned while an officer held a gun to his head. Bradley laments that the “moral power” of the law firm where his friend was interning was not invoked by the firm’s partners. Without that moral coercion, the laws that give us all citizens equal rights remain only theoretical.

Class Conflict

Although the central conflict associated with the LA turmoil was based in racial divisions, there is clearly a relationship between race relations and Page 242  |  Top of Articleeconomic class, particularly in the distinction between the impoverished inner-city residents “of color” and wealthy suburban whites. Some of the bitterness of the blacks and Latinos is based on what is perceived as class privilege, not just race. For example, much of Katie Miller’s anger is directed against the implicit assumption by the media that the poor people who looted the I. Magnin store on Wilshire Boulevard were “thugs,” inferior to the rich people who shopped there. She deplores the “give me your money and get out of my face” attitude of inner-city store owners who lack any respect for their customers.


One response to the LA turmoil was fear, a feeling prevalent among whites but also expressed by many others. The rage that gripped the rioters and looters induced panic in white people like the Hollywood agent (Anonymous Man #2); Elaine Young, the realtor; and the co-ed at the University of Southern California (Anonymous Young Woman). Paula Weinstein, a movie producer, remembers “watching rich white people guard their houses and send their children out of L.A. as if the devil was coming after them.” As Owen Smet reports, after the riots, latent fears almost doubled the business of the Beverly Hills Gun Club, because “there’s no place safe in LA County, daylight or dark.”

Some of the minority people found a positive thing in the fear felt by whites. Rudy Salas, Sr., for example, takes great personal pleasure in the fear that whites have of minorities. Others, like Paul Parker, see the white fear as a catalyst for achieving racial justice.

Guilt and Innocence

To some extent, culpability goes hand in hand with fear in Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. As the Hollywood agent remarks, the “victims of the system,” the ones burning and looting, “got the short shrift.” He admits that he “started to absorb a little guilt” for what was happening. Shame also seems to overwhelm the juror in the first Rodney King trial when talking about the KKK letter of support for the jurors.

Too often, though, guilt is deflected through a displacing of personal responsibility. For example, LAPD Chief Daryl Gates, criticized for slipping off to a Republican fund raiser during the crisis, rationalizes his behavior and complains of being victimized as a “symbol of police oppression,” despite his excellent record and work he “had done with kids.”

Justice and Injustice

Many of the figures in Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 talk of justice, especially in the context of victimization. For the blacks, the first Rodney King trial resulted in a travesty of justice, and many others agreed with that assessment, believing the verdict wrong. The civil unrest started from a protest against that injustice. For Theresa Allison and others, the struggle of the inner-city blacks is against injustices largely perpetuated by police brutality. With sad anger, she asks: “Why do they have so much power? Why does the system work for them? Where can we go to get the justice that they have?” These are questions which Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 can simply raise, not answer.

Law and Order

The riot erupting in the wake of the verdict in the first Rodney King trial represented a basic breakdown of law and order, as described by Compton Fire Department Captain Lane Haywood and others. While some officials remark on ways the breakdown could have been anticipated and prevented, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, speaking at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, proclaimed that “whether we like it or not, riot is the voice of the unheard.”

For some, like Julio Menjivar, the efforts to restore law and order involved the misuse of power by both the LAPD and the National Guard, which, he claims, victimized his family and unjustly arrested him. Such complaints against the abuse of power by the police thread through the remarks of many of the inner-city minority speakers. Measured against these, Sergeant Charles Duke’s conclusion that the lawlessness arose from improper or inadequate use of force to maintain peace seems tragically discordant.

Prejudice and Tolerance

Racial intolerance also threads through the speeches of various persons and is intrinsically bound to other themes. L.A.’s ethnic diversity still lies at the root of some of its problems. Images of white cops and black or Latino victims are common in the accounts, but so too are statements of mutual intolerance voiced by the blacks and Korean Americans. For Paul Parker, the chairperson of the Free Page 243  |  Top of Articlethe LA Four Plus Committee, “the Koreans was like the Jews,” store owners from an earlier era, and targets of much of the black rage.

Race and Racism

Obviously related to questions of anger and intolerance, racial identity is a very important theme in Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. Implicit in the work is the paradoxical idea that cultural diversity is both a source of a community’s discord and its potential strength, a potential that far too few seem to realize. Many of the speakers are racial apologists, defenders of their ethnic heritage, in which they take pride. The dark side of that pride is racial insularity, a powerful impediment to the creation of a community in which race consciousness no longer exists. Spokespersons too easily place blame elsewhere, outside their own race. The shame is that, like Theresa Allison and Michael Zinzun, they are often justified by what happened.

Victim and Victimization

A feeling of victimization is ubiquitous in Smith’s drama. It lies at the root of all complaints about injustice and is the source of much of the frustration and anger. It is expressed by members of all involved minorities—black, Latino, and Korean. It is, for example, the focus of Mrs. Young-Soon Han’s poignant litany. The former owner of a liquor store destroyed in the riots, she complains that “Korean immigrants were left out from society and we were nothing.” It is a charge paralleled in the monologues of blacks and Latinos, too. It is sometimes tied to the idea of revenge, justifying the carnage of the rioting. That is the message of Paul Parker, for example, and it is the warning of Con-gresswoman Maxine Waters, who insists that people who have “been dropped off everybody’s agenda” will grow angry and take to the streets to vent their anger and frustration.


Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 has no narrative thread defining its structure. Its kinship is with eye-witness accounts reported in the media or responses to questions asked by a talk-show interviewer. The “story” behind the play consists of the actual events that occurred in Los Angeles over a two-year period. These include the beating of Rodney King, the trial and verdict in the ensuing trial, the violent community reaction, the beating of Reginald Denny, the federal Rodney King trial, and the trial and outcome of “L.A. Four” accused of the attempted murder of Denny.


The language of Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 is not the invention of the playwright. It consists of the actual words used by the real people that she interviewed, and it reflects various dialects and levels of command of English. For many of the figures, English is an adopted language, thus many speeches are rich with unidiomatic expressions and nonstandard grammar. Smith’s characters talk like real people because they are real people, and Smith as playwright-performer captures the colloquial cadences and texture of their speech in her literal transcriptions. In the case of Chung Lee, President of the Korean-American Victims Association, she even uses a figure who speaks Korean that must be translated by his son. As with her other “characters,” Smith studied Lee’s speech and renders his voice verbatim in her performances.


Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 has been called a work of “documentary theater.” The events discussed by the “characters” are real, as are the characters themselves. Smith’s method is journalistic, but it is made dramatic by her on-stage renderings or performance of the real persons she depicts. On paper, her work is a collection of monologues compiled from her interviews. Her own voice is removed and her questions merely implied. On stage, Smith strives for objectivity and completely obscures her role as interviewer as she adapts the character and voice of those she had interviewed. Speaking of the published text of Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, Smith says her book “is first and foremost a document of what an actress heard in Los Angeles,” and that her “performance is a reiteration of that.”


Almost all the characters in Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 present themselves in monologues in isolation from the rest of the dramatis personae. There is, in fact, a total absence of dialogue, the usual engine and necessary method of advancing story in dramatic form. The nature of the monologues Page 244  |  Top of Articlevaries greatly, as do the voices presenting them. Some are very articulate, rational, and coherent, while others are charged with emotion and often inchoate. The content of the monologues also varies greatly, running a gamut from self-vindication to heated diatribes against perceived injustices.


Drama, as a presentational form, unfolds in the here and now, and it ordinarily uses narrative primarily for exposition and the reporting of offstage actions. A common character in much traditional drama is the “messenger,” who, for example, reports the outcome of a battle that cannot be depicted on stage. To some degree, the characters in Twi-light: Los Angeles, 1992 are all messengers, and the events they allude to or describe are things that have happened in the offstage world of South-Central Los Angeles. They are somewhat like media commentators and interpreters, not actors in a unfolding scene. It precisely for this reason that Smith’s drama defies traditional classification.

Stream of Consciousness

Smith faithfully renders what her subjects have actually said in their interviews with her. She removes only her own voice. Although the monologues are not interior stream-of-consciousness monologues, some of them are similar to that narrative technique in their free association of ideas. They are full of non-sequiturs, hesitation, and verbal hemming and hawing. That impromptu, unrehearsed quality is fundamental to the documentary authenticity of the work.


There is really no symbolism in Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, at least not in the ordinary sense. Symbolism suggests a conscious artistry on the part of the writer, but Smith as writer is primarily a reporter and arranger. Her artistry is largely the interpretive artistry of theater, revealed in her performance of die voices that she has objectively recorded. Still, there is a sort of emblem in the concept of “twilight,” a word used not only because it is the name of her titular figure, Twilight Bey, but also because it is used by others to suggest a kind of condition, the limbo of which Bey speaks. Twilight sees himself as “stuck in limbo,” a place between dark and light. For him, light is the “knowledge and wisdom of the world,” while darkness, although not negative, means a narrower perspective, of, as he says, “just identifying with people like me and understanding me and mine.” That limbo, that twilight, seems equally descriptive of the condition of the City of Los Angeles and its people.

Urban Realism

Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, with its focus on the problems of a great metropolis, is a work of urban realism. Like traditional narratives dealing with life in ghettos and slums, the work shows the plight of many inner-city residents, people who have to live with despair, anger, and frustration, subjected as they are to drive-by shootings, unemployment, drug trafficking, police brutality, economic exploitation, and a host of other problems. It does not, of course, suggest ways to solve the problems. Instead, it offers an almost clinical study of their effect on the lives of the people whose voices Smith gives public hearing on stage.


When Anna Deavere Smith first began her On the Road series of plays in 1983, the Soviet Bloc had begun disintegrating, and the Cold War was quickly winding down. It officially ended during the administration of President George Bush. Anticipated peace benefits did not really materialize, however, even though an economic recovery from a recession had begun by 1993, the year in which President William Clinton entered the Oval Office and Smith completed Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. Domestic violence, drug trafficking, and other criminal activity continued to plague the United States, as did global disasters affecting foreign policy. Not all the problems were man made, however.

Natural Disasters Take Toll in U.S. and Abroad

In August of 1992, Hurricane Andrew hit the Homestead area of South Florida, killing 15, leaving 250,000 homeless and causing $20 billion in property damage. In the same year, flooding in Chicago and a violent Nor’easter striking East Coast states caused considerable damage and loss of life.

In the next year, another violent storm struck the Eastern Seaboard in March, claiming 240 lives Page 245  |  Top of Articleand causing extensive property damage. In the summer, flooding of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers took 50 lives and destroyed an estimated $ 12 billion in property and crops.

Abroad, by 1992, famine in Somalia had killed over 300,000 people, and the ensuing anarchy prompted President Bush to send U. S. troops into Somalia under a United Nations mandate. Civil wars in Sudan, Angola, and Mozambique also created mass starvation. The next year, violent rains and earthquakes took over 20,000 lives in areas of India and Bangladesh.

Terrorism Hits America’s Homeland

At home, the United States got its first serious taste of the kind of terrorist activities that have plagued many foreign countries. On February 26, 1993, a bomb set by Islamic fundamentalists at New York’s World Trade Center killed six and forced 100,000 persons to evacuate the twin towers. Unlike the violence of the Los Angeles rioting, arising from domestic problems, the attack on the World Trade Center was prompted by the foreign policy of the United States. It was also premeditated, not a spontaneous reaction to a specific perceived injustice.

Many Americans Remain in Poverty

The plight of the “unheard” inner-city minorities for whom Smith provides a voice in Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 is reflected in the fact that in 1993 over ten percent of all Americans had to depend on food stamps to get enough to eat. The total number, 26.6 million, was the highest in the program’s history. Clearly, the improving economic picture was not helping the nation’s poor, many of whom lived in urban slums like South-Central Los Angeles.

Efforts to Control Gun Sales Continues

In an on-going effort to reverse the growth of violent crime, including urban drive-by shootings, the federal government passed the “Brady Bill,” signed into law on November 30, 1993. The law requires a five-day waiting period in the purchase of handguns. Earlier in the same month, the Senate passed a bill banning the manufacture and sale of assault-style automatic weapons, despite a major campaign launched by the National Rifle Association to prevent its passage. Demands for controls increased in the wake of the Long Island Railroad train attack by Colin Ferguson, who, on December 7, 1993, gunned down several commuters, leaving five dead and eighteen wounded.

Abortion Issue Continues to Divide America

Domestic violence in the United States was hardly limited to the economic and racial problems contributing to the upheaval in Los Angeles. America was divided over the issue of legalized abortion, for example. On March 10, 1993, during a demonstration outside a women’s clinic in Pensacola, Florida, an anti-abortion advocate shot and killed Dr. David Gunn. Activists burned down or sprayed other abortion clinics with noxious chemicals in protest of an “abortion on demand” policy.

Siege of Branch Davidian Cult at Waco Ends in Disaster

Anti-government groups, including private militias, continued to spring up in the United States, as did some religious cults with similar political agendas. The Branch Davidians, led by David Koresh, stood off a 51-day siege by government agents in Waco, Texas. On April 19, 1993, when stormed by federal law enforcement agents using tear gas, the cult members set fire to their compound, killing over 80 cult members, including two dozen children. The event contributed fuel to the anti-government activity that continues to afflict the nation.


Anna Deavere Smith’s Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 has garnered considerable critical acclaim through its production history, stretching from venues in Los Angeles and New York to Washington, D. C. and London, England. Its success in theaters far removed from the play’s focus and epicenter, the Spring, 1992, civil upheaval in South-Central Los Angeles, attests to its power to transcend the topicality of its content—the real-world social problems that have led P. J. Corso and others to call her play a “docudrama.”

For some critics, in her On the Road series, of which Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 and Fires in the Mirror are the most compelling and successful parts, Smith has created what a reviewer in Time Page 246  |  Top of Articleclaims is “a new art form.” But what that new form is remains very controversial. So, too, does Smith’s classification as a writer.

In analyzing Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 and other pieces from On the Road, some critics have pondered over this very issue. For Chris Vognar, the question is “what to call her? Actress/playwright? Anthropologist/ethnographer?” Smith’s text, after all, is primarily an archive of the actual words of real people who lived through and in or near the turmoil that began with the beating of Rodney King and exploded into the South-Central Los Angeles rioting and looting. Smith compiled and arranged the monologues from interviews that she conducted with these people, leading some to discuss her role as writer as largely that of a journalist or “oral historian” in the mold of her acknowledged mentor, Studs Terkel. The argument was rehashed by the 1994 Pulitzer Prize jury in drama, which removed Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 from consideration, as Sean Mitchell reported, because “its language was not invented but gleaned from interviews.” It was also the opinion of the jury that the work could be performed only by Smith, because she alone conducted the interviews.

That critical caveat is not so troubling to those who see Smith as a “performance-playwright” and concentrate on her stage artistry rather than her compiled, inanimate text. Part of Smith’s skill is revealed in the dramatic tapestry of disparate voices that she weaves in performance. As Jan Stuart notes, “Smith lines up her characters in a boldly ironic juxtaposition,” threading her way through what Robert Brustein calls the “victims, victimizers, and viewers” that she depicts.

More an arranger than a composer perhaps, but Smith, for most reviewers, has nevertheless worked theatrical magic in the various productions of Twilight. Almost no critic denies Smith’s mimetic skills, her great artistic gift in depicting a broad spectrum of characters through what Monica Cortes calls “acting otherness.” Martin Hernandez describes her as a “human chameleon, embodying each character with astounding flexibility.” Through sudden shifts in her posture, gesture and voice, accompanied by minor, quick-change adjustments in dress, Smith transforms herself from one person into another, crossing chasms of race, gender, age, and class in the blink of an eye. Describing her technique, Richard Schechner claims that Smith “works by means of deep mimesis, a process opposite to that of ‘pretend.’;” He maintains that she “incorporates” her characters and that her method “is less like that of a conventional Euro-American actor and more like that of African, Native American, and Asian ritualists.”

More of a sticking point for interpreters of her play is Smith’s assumed purpose in Twilight and other plays in her On the Road series. Most credit Smith with admirable objectivity and basic fairness. Michael Feingold argues that the playwright-actress arranges her materials “so that we see all sides” equitably. Smith “never tilts this balance,” he maintains, but moves “inside the anger and hate” of her diverse characters to find “sources of potential community” and the possibility of repairing “our shredded social contract.” From this critical vantage point, Smith is a shaman-healer, helping a community and the nation bind up the wounds of class and racial discord.

There are, however, dissenting voices. For Stefan Kanfer, Smith’s play is flawed because it advances “an illiberal agenda concealed by a mask of objectivity.” He claims that “every member of a minority group is given a shred of dignity, a credible plea of despair,” while the depicted whites are shown only as “brutes,” “fools,” or “insensitive naifs.” From this point of view, Smith is biased, and her true agenda is not to heal but to place blame and, presumably, invoke white guilt.

Others, like Robert Brustein, while crediting Smith with “an objective ear,” draw pessimistic conclusions from her play and performance. Noting that “hate” and “enemy” are “the operative words” of the play, Brustein claims that Twilight “leaves us with a shocking sense of how America’s hopes for racial harmony were left burning in the ashes of South-Central L.A.” That, of course, is not so much an indictment of the play as it is of society.

The most troubling critical question is whether there is in fact a play without the playwright. As Mitchell says, “it is hard to imagine an Anna Deavere Smith show without Anna Deavere Smith.” When read, the matter she enlivens in performance is, according to Mitchell, “only a little more fruitful than trying to read A Chorus Line or Phantom of the Opera.” Furthermore, as Kanfer points out, the final fate of two of the white police officers who beat Rodney King and the $3.8 million civil-suit award granted him “tend to vitiate the impact” of Smith’s play. Can her play text survive Smith herself and its ever-increasing distance from the events that inspired it? Only time will tell.

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John Fiero

Fiero is an experienced actor and a professor at the University of Southwestern Louisiana. In this essay he discusses Smith’s skill as a performer of her own material and its role in the effectiveness of her play.

On January 27, 1997, at the New York Town Hall, Anna Deavere Smith moderated a debate between playwright August Wilson and theater pundit Robert Brustein over Wilson’s position that black American playwrights should work within a theater exclusively devoted to black culture. Wilson had taken particular umbrage with the practice of “color-blind-casting,” especially as it pertains to casting black actors in “white” plays. According to Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in Wilson’s view, “for a black actor to walk the stage of Western drama was to collaborate with the culture of racism,” to demean, and to rob the actor of his or her true and distinct identity.

Whether or not Wilson is in some ways “an unlikely spokesman for a new Black Arts movement,” as Gates maintains, he has championed a view that seems diametrically opposed to what Smith practices in her multi-cultural, mimetic art. Described by Sharon Fitzgerald as “Anna of a thousand faces,” Smith dons the character of her interviewed subjects without a nanosecond’s regard for the politically-correct idea that actors should portray only what their birthright entitles them to portray. In her one-woman performances of Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, she has impersonated an imposing array of real people of different color, sex, national origin, socioeconomic class, political complexion, and age—shedding and donning character guises like a human chameleon.

Her purpose, too, seems antithetical to what Wilson preaches. As Lauren Feldman argues, “Smith inspires us to scrutinize common constructions of race, our own complicity in the events that continue to shape American race relations, and the role of the arts in reproducing or deconstructing social stereotypes.” Thus, in searching for the American character, Smith has elected to deal with actual people at critical junctures in their lives, when their identities and even their lives are at risk. Moreover, she maintains that if American theater is to “mirror society” honestly, it “must embrace diversity.” To that end, she crowds her dramatic canvass with portraits of diverse people caught in moments of reflection on an emotionally charged and violent set of real events. Hers is an assimilative aim, to synthesize such diverse voices into a “more complex language” which “our race dialogue desperately needs.” In contrast, Wilson’s separatist aim seems completely inimical to such a race dialogue.

The niggling question is whether that more complex language is inherent in the text of Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 or in the artistry of Smith as actress—or whether, indeed, the two can ever be separated. She has been credited with silencing “all the questions about racial identity in race-specific plays.” For William Sun and Faye Fei, Smith has evolved “a unique genre” that allows her to pirouette convincingly through her characterizations without benefit of masks or makeup. Her range is simply extraordinary, covering a “full spectrum that runs between opposite racial, political, and ideological poles.” In one moment, she is a white, middle-aged male, such as former LAPD Chief Daryl Gates; in the next, through a “morphing” of her face, gestures, posture, and, most of all, her voice, she becomes a female, like Elvira Edwards, the young Panamanian mother, or Elaine Brown, the over-fifty, former head of the Black Panther Party. Then, in a wink of the eye, she is a man again, but this time a proud and angry man, like Mexican-American artist, Rudy Salas, or the old Korean immigrant, Chung Lee, who can only speak in his native tongue. While a backdrop video screen provides footage of the Los Angeles rioting and beatings of Rodney King and Reginald Denny, the remarkable metamorphoses themselves are usually aided with only the barest theatrical amenities: slide projections identifying each character by a caption, name and, brief identifier; some minimal adjustments in stage and hand properties; and some slight costume changes, usually involving only one or two items of dress, like a hat and a shirt, or a pair of shoes and a jacket.

Her rendering of these “characters” has earned Smith warm praise from critics and audiences alike. She has repeatedly awed theater patrons with her rare mimetic gifts, leading more than one commentator to remark on her virtuosity. She has also been praised for her boldness, for her crossing of race, gender and language barriers, for finding and mining the humor that somehow survives the cataclysmic events behind the work, and for her innovative blending of theater arts, journalism and social sciences

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Sidebar: HideShow


  • Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights Brooklyn and Other Identities (1992), like Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 is from Smith’s On the Road series and employs the same technique. Its focus event is the rioting in the Crown Heights area of Brooklyn after the accidental killing of a black child by a Jewish rabbi. Text available as an Anchor Book from Doubleday.
  • The Hunger Wall, is a collection of poems by James Ragan, inspired by the Los Angeles civil unrest of 1992 and the peaceful breakup of the former Czechoslovakia a month later (Grove Press, 1995).
  • Spell #7 (1979), a play by Ntozke Shange, offers a tremendous contrast to Smith’s work in technique, although both writers are African American women interested in efforts to find an identity in a white-dominated culture.
  • Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), James Agee’s photo-essay study of Georgia sharecroppers gives voice to the anonymous, unheard common man as Smith does in her On the Road series of plays.
  • Working (1974) and Coming of Age (1995), two anthologies of oral histories compiled by Studs Terkel, the common man’s historian, which record the voices of ordinary folk interviewed by the author. Smith acknowledges Terkel as one of her mentors; Coming of Age is available from The New Press; Working is available from Ballantine Books.
  • “The Street Scene” (1938), Bertolt Brecht’s brief essay on primitive “epic theater,” which excludes the “engendering of illusion” that characterizes traditional theater. Critics have discussed Smith work in terms of Brecht’s theories and practice.
  • I Am a Man (1995), by OyamO (Charles Gordon), a play about the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike, deals with the civil rights struggle from the perspective of the “unheard,” common man to whom Smith also gives a voice. The focus is on T. O. Jones, a sort of Everyman who sets out to right social injustices.
  • The Coming Race War in America: A Wake-Up Call, by syndicated columnist Carl T. Rowan, investigates the nation’s “violent decline” and the lack of change for the vast majority of minority Americans since the civil rights upheaval of the 1960s (available from Little, Brown, 1996).

into that unique genre identified by scholars Sun and Fei.

Wisely, Smith does not depict herself as a character. She simply discards her real persona, the writer who spent countless hours interviewing her subjects. Furthermore, as Michael Feingold remarks, at some point early on in her performance, the actress, Anna Deavere Smith, paradoxically “disappears,” leaving just “men, women, and children, talking in a torrent of diverse languages, living out their anger, their pain, their injuries and resentments and joys and fears.” Each character speaks in a monologue, seldom, if ever, making reference to Smith or revealing the inquiry-response format of the interview process. She delivers their words “verbatim to an audience that often includes her ‘characters’ themselves,” as Sun and Fei have noted. Her great skill in “acting otherness” has convinced even the most dubious members of her audience that she “can be as true as, or even truer than” those real persons she presents to the critical ear and eye.

In the final analysis, Smith does not really disappear during performance. She cannot and does not try to replicate her subjects through elaborate theatrical cloning. The audience is never invited to Page 249  |  Top of Articlepenetrate any sort of disguise, because, in truth, she never really dons one. Maskless through each of her portrayals, she maintains, however tenuously, her own identity, not as writer but as actress. Furthermore, it is her persistent presence as a black actress that provides a powerful counterpoint to her dramatic portrayals. This “simultaneous presence of performer and performed” is what Richard Schechner calls “doubling,” a quality “that marks great performances.” That is part of Smith’s “shamanic invocation,” a way of inviting the audience to “allow the other in, to feel what the other is feeling,” a way of achieving an extraordinary degree of empathy.

Smith’s play text does not, of course, consist of her own words. As she has indicated, in Twilight she has assembled a “document of what an actress heard in Los Angeles.” In doing so, says Monica Cortes, she “shares the authority of authorship with the community that is the subject of her piece.” Using the actual language of people who normally remain unheard, Smith gives them significant weight, shouldered by the “authority” of their shared authorship.

Yet, because she only recorded what others said, some have questioned her legitimacy as a playwright. Such reservations arise from a strict adherence to a single-author concept, what Iris Smith labels the “modernist notion of authorship.” An alternate model, coming into its own of late, is what she calls “the theater collective,” a method by which “play writing is intertwined with play staging, and often done by the same actors, directors and artists.” Although Anna Smith acts in solo performance, she has worked extensively with dramaturges as collaborators, and has continued to deal with Twilight as a theatrical work in progress, not something forever restricted to the order or inclusiveness of a text which is at once both more and less the play. For critic Smith, Anna Smith qualifies as one of those “willing to risk losing control over the work, if the text can go out and do good work in the world.”

Good work is surely the playwright’s aim. She admits to a polemical purpose, to demonstrate that we “must reach across ethnic boundaries” to achieve some sympathetic understanding in the race dialogue she so fervently seeks. She also admits to being political, the inevitable legacy of her gender and race.“I am political without opening my mouth,” she says; “my presence is political.”

Therein may lie the rub. Smith has expressed an interest in having other actors perform her play, perhaps an ensemble of players. But one must wonder if other interpreters of the text could or would do justice to her purpose—the promotion of a new community dialogue. Sandra Loh, who maintains that Smith’s cross-ethnic depictions involve an “ironic twist,” argues that the actress-playwright could never get away with “impersonating” her array of sexually and racially mixed characters “if she were a white heterosexual male.” Probably not, but more to the point, if the play were interpreted by a white actor, male or female, its meaning would certainly drift off Smith’s intended course, thanks to unavoidable nuances that would result from the “doubling” effect of which Schechner writes.

One must also question whether anyone who has not dealt one-on-one with the real people of Smith’s docudrama could, as Lauren Feldman remarks, “capture the characters with the same convincing compassion.” One suspects that, at the least, Smith herself would have to coach the audacious actor who attempts to follow in her solo-performance footsteps. That possibility, like the community’s memory of the events behind the play, is transitory. It also gives rise to Feldman’s question: “will Twilight lose force with each additional degree of separation?” The answer is probably “yes,” but it will not really matter if the race dialogue that Smith seeks is in authentic progress.

Source: John Fiero, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 1997.

Robert Brustein

In the following review, noted drama critic Brustein examines Smith’s work in Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, taking particular note of the multicultural issues that surrounded the Los Angeles riots.

The most cogent commentators on our stormy times have unquestionably been not the columnists but the cartoonists, which is another way of noting that representational satire has more capacity than political commentary to relieve the pressures of a fractious age. On stage two inspired performers have recently been offering their own perspectives on the issues that divide us, and while the African American Anna Deavere Smith and the Jewish Jackie Mason seem worlds apart in tone, attitude, focus and ethnicity, they each provide more perspective Page 250  |  Top of Articleon the nature of our discords than an army of op-ed pundits.

It is true that Smith might be more accurately described as a sociologist than as a satirist. Both in her previous Fires in the Mirror, which covered the Crown Heights affair, and in her current piece at the Joseph Papp Public Theater, Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, which deals with the riots in South-Central L.A., she has drawn her material from interviews with the actual participants in those events. Still, Smith is not only an objective ear but a characterizing voice, and just as she shapes her text through editing and selection, so she achieves her emphasis through gesture and intonation. During the course of the evening the actress impersonates forty-six different people, capturing the essence of each character less through mimetic transformation, like an actor, than through the caricaturist’s body English and vocal embellishments. Just look at her photographs: you’d never guess from any of those contorted head shots that she’s an extremely handsome young woman.

Smith’s subjects divide essentially into victims, victimizers and viewers, though it is sometimes difficult to determine which is which. If the former L.A. Police Chief Daryl Gates (defending himself against charges that he permitted the riots to rage while attending a fundraiser) and Sergeant Charles Duke (complaining that Officer Lawrence Powell was “weak and inefficient with the baton” because he wasn’t allowed to use the “choke-hold”) are clearly the patsies of the piece, the rioters, looters, gang members and assailants often appear more sinned against than sinning. A white juror in the first Rodney King trial—asked by a reporter, “Why are you hiding your heads in shame?”—is appalled to receive approving calls from the KKK. Keith Watson, one of those acquitted of beating Reginald Denny, justifies his rage and the burned-out vacant lots by saying “justice didn’t work,” while Paul Parker, chairperson of the Free the L.A. Four Defense Committee, charges “You kidnapped us, you raped our women. . .you expect us to feel something for the white boy?” One gringo-hating Latino, ranting against the “peckerwoods” and “rednecks” who have persecuted his family, expresses pleasure in the way Mexicans are able to terrify whites. Another Latino is encouraged by a policeman to “go for it, it’s your neighborhood.” A black woman “touring” in the white neighborhood loots I. Magnin because she finds it “very offensive” that rich stars should feel protected from rioting.

Then there are the other victims: the Asian shopkeepers who, in those tumultuous days, lost 90 percent of their stores and a number of their family members. At the same time that a spokesperson for a young black girl shot by a Korean shopkeeper (who was acquitted) is raging against Asians, Mrs. Young Soon Han, a former liquor store owner, speaks of her disenchantment with blacks. There were none in the Hollywood movies she saw in Korea; she thought this country was the best. Now “they” have destroyed the shops of innocent merchants simply because “we have a car and a house. . . . Where do I find justice? What about victims’ rights?” Another store owner, inveighing against shoplifting and looting, remarks, “After that, I really hate this country, I really hate—we are not like customer and owner but more like enemy.”

“Enemy” and “hate” are the operative words of Twilight. With each ethnic group bristling at the other, one might think “cultural diversity” had become a euphemism for race war. A Mexican woman reporter, told her life is in danger, replies: “How could they think I was white?” The African American Parker boasts how “we burnt down the Koreans—they are like the Jews in this neighborhood.” And this is countered not by appeals for tolerance but by counsels of caution, like those of Elaine Brown, former Black Panther, reminding the gun-brandishing, swash-buckling looters about America’s willingness to use its power: “Ask Saddam Hussein.”

To judge by the interviews in Twilight, however, the Los Angeles riots caused a lot of soul-searching, and considerable guilt, among some white Americans. The experience certainly stimulated considerable generosity from Denny, who, pleading for recognition as a person rather than a color, expresses profound gratitude to the black people who risked their lives to save him. By contrast, others, such as a reporter named Judith Tur, wonder why South-Central blacks can’t be more like Magic Johnson or Arthur Ashe, adding that “white people are getting so angry, they’re going back fifty years.” A suburban real estate agent named Elaine Young, who has had thirty-six silicone surgeries on her face, whines that “we don’t have the freeway, we can’t eat anywhere, everything’s closed,” meanwhile defending her decision to hole up in the Beverly Hills Hotel.

These are easy targets; and it is true that Twilight sometimes lacks the dialectical thickness, as well as the surprise and unpredictability, of Fires in Page 251  |  Top of Articlethe Mirror. Lasting over two hours, it seems too long and too short for its subject. The L.A. riots were a response to violence and injustice by means of violence and injustice, and the paradox still to be explored is how looting and burning Korean stores and destroying your own neighborhood, not to mention racial assaults on innocent people, could become acceptable means of protest against inequity and racism. With most of them still in shock, few of Smith’s respondents are in a position to examine the irrationality of such acts unless, like Shelby Coffey, they cite “a vast, even Shakespearean range of motives.”

Smith makes some effort to penetrate these motives by ending her piece with a poetic reflection by a gang member on the “limbo” twilight of crack addicts, but the metaphor somehow seems inadequate. Still, if she has not always gone beyond the events of this tragedy, she has powerfully dramatized a world of almost universal tension and hatred. George C. Wolfe’s elaborate production, with its videos of King’s beating and films of Los Angeles burning, is probably more appropriate for the coming Broadway move than for the stage of the Public. But it leaves us with a shocking sense of how America’s hopes for racial harmony were left burning in the ashes of South-Central L.A.

Source: Robert Brustein, “P.C.—or Not P.C.” in the New Republic, Vol. 210, no. 18, May 2, 1994, pp. 29–31.

Jan Stuart

Stuart praises Smith’s writing and acting work in the following review, noting her skill with multiple and complex characters.

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Source: Jan Stuart, “Twilight: Group Therapy for a Nation” in Newsday, March 24, 1994.


Brustein, Robert. “P.C.—or Not P.C.,” The New Republic, Vol. 210, no. 18, May 2, 1994, pp. 29-31.

A review of the Joseph Papp Public Theater production of Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 arguing that Smith might be better classified “as a sociologist than artist.” Brustein divides her figures into “victims, victimizers and viewers.”

Corso, P. J. “Anna Deavere Smith,” AFROAM-L Archives, October 24, 1994., February 16, 1997.

Corso relates Smith’s method and matter to the work of Bertolt Brecht but argues that the commercial success of her work inhibits its value as a catalyst for social change.

Cortes, Monica Munoz. “The Works of Anna Deavere Smith: An Exploration of Otherness,” 95 McNair Journal., January 15, 1997.

Relates performance theory based on theories of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan to Smith’s “theater of otherness.”

Feingold, Michael. “Twilight’s First Gleaming” in the Village Voice, Vol. 39, no. 14, April 5, 1994, pp. 97, 100.

A very favorable review of the Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 staged in New York in which Feingold praises Smith’s “triple ability” as interviewer, writer, and actress.

Feldman, Lauren. “A Constellation of Character,” Perspective,

A review of Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 discussing the Smith’s staging of the work and its evolution as the playwright’s sense of race-relations have changed.

Fitzgerald, Sharon. ‘Anna of a Thousand Faces” in American Visions, Vol 9, no. 5, October-November, 1994, pp. 14-18.

Discussing both Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 and Fires in the Mirror, article covers both Smith’s onstage techniques and motives in her writing.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. “The Chitlin Circuit” in the New Yorker, Vol. 72, no. 45, February 3, 1997, pp. 44-55.

Gates discusses August Wilson’s position on the need for a separatist black theater while chastising him for never having been a “Chitlin Circuit” playwright.

Kanfer, Stefan. “Twilight Tragedies” in the New Leader, Vol. 77, no. 5, May 9, 1994, pp. 22-23.

A review that finds Smith’s play flawed by its “illiberal agenda concealed by a mask of objectivity” and its “unwieldy” material.

Kroll, Jack. “Fire in the City of Angels” in Newsweek, Vol. 121, June 28, 1993, pp. 62-63.

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A very favorable review of the Mark Taper Forum production of Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, applauding Smith as “the most exciting individual in American theater right now.”

Lewis, Barbara. “The Circle of Confusion: A Conversation with Anna Deavere Smith “in Kenyon Review, Vol. 54, no. 4, Winter, 1993, pp. 54-64.

Although this interview relates primarily to Fires in the Mirror, it gives insights to Smith’s artistic aims and the influence of Ntozake Shange and George Wolfe on her work.

“Lives Altered Forever” in Time, Vol. 141, June 28, 1993, p. 73.

A review of the Mark Taper Forum production of Smith’s play, finding the play “sprawling” in its coverage but flawed in its impression that blacks acted almost alone in the rioting and looting.

Martin, Carol. “Anna Deavere Smith: The Word Becomes You” in the Drama Review, Vol. 37, no. 4, Winter, 1993, pp. 45-62.

An interview conducted with Smith, focusing on Fires in the Mirror, but covering Smith’s technique and purpose in her whole On the Road series.

Mason, Susan Vaneta, editor. “Theatre Review” in Theatre Journal, Vol. 46, 1994, pp. 111-18.

A collection of reviews of the Mark Taper Forum production of Smith’s play, the article presents an array of opinions from performance artists, writers, and critics.

Mitchell, Sean. “The Tangle over Twilight” in Los Angeles Times, June 12, 1994, pp. 7, 48.

Mitchell addresses the controversy that arose over the classification of Smith’s work as journalism or art.

Schechner, Richard. “Anna Deavere Smith: Acting as Incorporation” in the Drama Review, Vol. 37, no. 4, Winter, 1993, pp. 63-64.

Schechner describes Smith’s method of creating and performing her work as a sort of “shamanism.”

Smith, Anna Deavere. “Metaphor’s Funeral” on the National Endowment for the Arts website,, January 15, 1997.

Given as a speech before a meeting of the National Council on the Arts, Smith claims to desire a “theatre that reclaims performance” and laments the fact that “conversation has collapsed.”

Smith, Anna Deavere. “Not So Special Vehicles” in Peforming Arts Journal, Vol. 50/51, May-September, 1995, pp. 77-92.

Printed text of a keynote address delivered in 1993 at a meeting of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education, this speech discusses ethnocentric theater and the danger of “specialness” in the arts.

Smith, Iris. “Authors in America: Tony Kushner, Arthur Miller, and Anna Deavere Smith” in Centennial Review, Vol. 40, no. 1, Winter, 1996, pp. 125-42.

Smith discusses two “models” of theater authorship: the lone author, represented by Miller, and the “theater collective,” as represented by Kushner and Smith.

Stuart, Jan. “Twilight: Group Therapy for a Nation” in Newsday, March 24, 1994.

Stuart reviews the Joseph Papp Public Theater staging of Smith’s play, applauding Smith’s skill in providing the audience “with a breathtaking collage of real-life people who make us want to stand up and cheer, then sit back down and reflect.”

Sun, William H., and Faye C. Fei. “Masks or Face Re-Visited: A Study of Four Theatrical Works Concerning Cultural Identity” in Drama Review, Vol. 38, no. 4, Winter, 1994, pp. 120-32.

This article relates the mask to the problem of ethnic identities in plays and role interpretations. Although its focus is on the PBS, American Playhouse televised production of Fires in the Mirror (April 28, 1993), it argues that Smith’s work has “silenced” the problems of “racial identity in race-specific plays.”

Vognar, Chris. “Quite an Impression” in the Daily Calif-ornian website,, February 16, 1997.

A brief tribute to Smith’s work, praising her achievement as performance-playwright and her ability to go beyond “mere language and into the realm of the personality and the soul.”

Wald, Gayle. “Anna Deavere Smith’s Voices at Twilight” in Postmodern Culture, Vol. 4, no. 2, January, 1994. Website at , January 22, 1997.

A review of Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 as staged at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey, this piece offers an extensive description of Smith’s performance technique.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2692700023