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COVER STORY : The Voices of the City : Theater artist Anna Deavere Smith immersed herself in post-riot L.A., listening to the outpouring of a shaken community--and weaving it into a kaleidoscopic, 30-character solo piece, 'Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992'

ONE YEAR AFTER THE RIOTS. The city looks to the future. One in an occasional series.Calendar's coverage of the arts community's response to the riots continues on Monday.

April 25, 1993|RICHARD STAYTON | Richard Stayton is a playwright and free-lance journalist based in Los Angeles

One year ago, on the verge of her first major career break, an obscure performance artist learned that her New York opening was being canceled. Race riots were erupting 3,000 miles away in Los Angeles. A fuse had been lit, stretching to Manhattan.

Instead of calling her agent, the artist rushed to Times Square and participated in a demonstration against the verdicts in the state trial of the Rodney G. King beating case.

To Anna Deavere Smith, the idea of performing inside a theater while the world outside changed so radically was anathema.

"New York closed down," Smith remembers, "and I was glad when they canceled my show. I didn't want to be in this dark hole while it was happening. I felt this longing to have been glued to the television, like most of America."

What Smith didn't know then was that the aftermath of those riots would become her life for the better part of the next year. Her performance at the Joseph Papp Public Theater in New York focused on recent race riots in Brooklyn and opened only slightly later than planned. In the audience the first week was Gordon Davidson, artistic director of the Mark Taper Forum.

Soon after his city's rioting stopped, Davidson invited Smith to come to Los Angeles to create a work that would reflect the myriad voices that raged in pain, sadness and greed after the verdicts in Simi Valley acquitted four police officers charged with beating King.

In an attempt to capture the essence of post-riot Los Angeles, Smith has spent much of the past year talking to gang members, Korean shop owners, police officers and Angelenos of all sorts. And this 42-year-old theater artist, who was born in Baltimore and now lives in San Francisco, is still trying to make some sense of the chaos.

Smith is now in final stages of putting together "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992," set to open June 3 at the Taper. But her process is so fresh and so reliant on current events that even last weekend she was waiting for the verdicts in the officers' second trial before she could find the form for her "Rashomon" style of storytelling.

"I felt like I was waiting for personal news," Smith says of last week's Saturday morning verdicts. "Afraid to open the letter and see if it was going to say yes or no. Now the piece has a new focus, taking its shape very much around the verdict."

The past year has been an eventful one for Smith. Her solo at the Public Theater, "Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities," made her a finalist for the 1992 Pulitzer Prize in drama, and her televised adaptation will air Wednesday on PBS. In that 90-minute show, she becomes 26 distinct personae, based on the people she interviewed, and speaks in their dialects to the audience.

Her process of working on "Twilight" has been similar, although the research has been far more extensive: For the Crown Heights piece, Smith interviewed people for two weeks and then wrote "Fires." In Los Angeles, she has taken eight months and is still doing interviews and research.

"Fires" focuses on a one-block stretch of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where the protagonists were Orthodox Jews and African-Americans. In Los Angeles, the strife was citywide. Both works, however, involve city leaders and anonymous folks, celebrities and the impoverished.

Smith is very protective about the content of "Twilight," not allowing an interviewer to talk to her subjects and not revealing what form the work will take (in part because even she's not sure). She will say that she has conducted more than 140 interviews, driving from South-Central to Simi Valley, stopping in City Hall, Korean mini-malls and Hollywood studios. Along the way she talked to Mayor Tom Bradley, City Councilman and mayoral candidate Mike Woo, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) and Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.).

Actress Anjelica Huston and Rodney King's aunt Angela King spoke with her too. So did former Police Chief Daryl F. Gates and former professional football player Jim Brown, who now leads a national anti-gang organization, Amer-I-Can.

She also talked to lots of people who are not known at all. One ex-gang member impressed her because he seemed so philosophically peaceful despite his violent surroundings. A Korean grocer broke into tears talking to her, despite his anger at what had happened to his community. A TV writer described a drive-by shooting he had witnessed. None of these people had anything to gain from their confessions to Smith, a stranger to them.

"Anna has this way of making people want to talk and want to say what's on their mind," observed Kishisa Jefferson, Smith's driver and research assistant. "People who were hard to get, once we got Anna to them, would spill their guts. She just gives off this down-home, best-friend, someone-I-can-talk-to type of body language."

The title of Smith's work is borrowed from a former gang member dubbed Twilight, who helped negotiate last year's truce between two of Los Angeles' most deadly gangs, the Crips and the Bloods.

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