Wednesday, November 19, 2008

No, Not That "Twilight"

All this hubbub over the film version of Stephanie Meyer's "Twilight" got me thinking about another book with the same name, a fascinating text I used to teach about eight or nine years ago: Anna Deavere Smith's Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992.

Smith's Twilight may not involve vampires, but its main topic is a dark one nonetheless: the Los Angeles riots from April 1992.

In case you're unfamiliar with the L.A. riots, a little history lesson: in March 1991, four white L.A. police officers were caught on tape brutalizing a black motorist named Rodney King. A year later, the four police officers were tried-- and acquitted. That verdict ignited a literal and figurative firestorm, as rioters set fire to over twenty-five blocks of central L.A.

The riots lasted for three days, from April 29th to May 1st-- three days of beatings and burning and looting that caused damage to more than 3,000 businesses. In the end, according to the Los Angeles Times, the uprising resulted in 12,111 arrests, 2,383 injuries, and 58 deaths.

Not long after, Anna Deavere Smith-- an actress and playwright who was also, at the time, a drama professor at Stanford-- was commissioned to write a one-woman show about this frightening moment in time. To probe into the very heart of the cataclysm, Smith interviewed approximately two hundred people who actually experienced the riots. These interviews became the material for her show, Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. Or, more accurately, these interviews were the show.

The play is comprised of approximately twenty-five different monologues, all performed by Smith, who would assume the identifies of her interviewees. Even more extraordinary: the material for these monologues were the verbatim words taken from her interviews.

Because her characters are actual people whose actual words inform the script, Smith's work is sometimes "documentary theatre." The Laramie Project falls into the same category. The difference, of course, is that Anna Deavere Smith (an African-American woman) plays every single one of these "actual people" on the stage-- no matter if that person is male, female, white, black, Korean, Latino. The resulting performance was described in a June 28, 1993 Newsweek article as "an American materpiece."

Now, I never saw Smith perform Twilight live, but I have seen the PBS-produced film version, which came out in 2000. And, of course, I read the print version, which Smith describes as a "companion to the theater experience."

Obviously, watching Smith's performance-- witnessing the way she morphs into these differnt characters-- is critical to the experience; however, the book can still stand on its own. In fact, Twilight more than stands on its own as a work of literature.

The book version provides the transcripts of all the interviews/ monologues she ever performed, along with additional interviews she never included in her stage versions. Some of the most compelling interviews (in my opinion, at least) include the following:

  • Daryl Gates, former chief of the L.A. Police Department, who voices, four times during his interview, his indignant dismay that he has become "the symbol of police oppression" in the United States, "just because some officers whacked Rodney King."

  • Elvira Evers, a pregnant Panamanian woman who was shot during the riots. Doctors had to remove the baby, who survived but was born with "the bullet in her elbow." This miraculously saved both their lives: Elvira said that if her baby "didn't caught it in her arm, me and her would be dead."

  • Maxine Waters, California congresswoman whose office was burned down during the riots. Waters, in possibly the most poignant line from the book, describes riots as "the voice of the unheard."

  • Walter Park, a Korean store ownder who was shot through the eye during the upheaval and had to have part of his frontal lobe removed.

  • Reginald Denny, a motorist who was famously pulled from his truck during the chaos and beaten to the point of unconsciousness; in an eerie echo of the Rodney King, Denny's attack was also catured on film and aired on the news. In his monologue, he says one day he's going to have "riot room" in his house, but it will be a "happy room"-- a place to put all the "funny notes and the ltters form faraway places" he received in the wake of his ordeal.

  • "Anonymous Young Woman," an affluent student at the University of Southern California who was worried that the riots would reach her neighborhood and that someone would throw a bottle at one of her father's antique cars. "One bottle," she says, "one shear from one bottle in my father's car, he will die. He will die!" (Naturally, the irony of those words are lost on her.)

  • Twilight Bey, an ex-gang member who delivers the last monologue in the book and whose name became the title of the play. Twilight is trying to organize a truce between gangs in L.A. but he realizes his ideas are not always accepted. He's called "Twilight" because, as a mediator between opposing forces, he's stuck in-between: "Limbo, I call it limbo... I'm in an area not many people exist."
Obviously, this review is incomplete, but I wanted to give readers a taste of this provocative, thoroughly original, and oft-overlooked work. Check it out if you get a chance. And if you live in Arizona, you can see Anna Deavere Smith in a new one-woman show called The Arizona Project, which debuted November 5th. (You can also check out Smith on early episodes of The West Wing, playing National Security Advisor Nancy McNally. OK, no more plugs.)

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