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Seeing 'Twilight' in a Different Light : A Remarkably Powerful, Emotional Experience

July 05, 1993|RICHARD YARBOROUGH | Yarborough is an associate professor of English and Afro-American Studies at UCLA

Although I certainly agree with Jan Breslauer's description of Anna Deavere Smith's "Twilight" as "brilliantly crafted," "courageous" and "filled with virtuoso artistry and compassion," I take issue with the contention that it lacks sufficient "emotional punch," is insufficiently "analytical" and fails to "shed any new light on L.A.'s rifts" (" 'Twilight' Tries to Shed Light on '92 Riots," Calendar, June 15).

With regard to emotional impact, I must admit that I found myself far more moved by "Twilight" than I would have ever anticipated. Furthermore, I felt that most of thediverse audience shared the intensity of my own strong reactions--myriad and conflicting as they frequently were. Indeed, to my mind, it is in the extent to which "Twilight" elicits such powerful and at times contending emotional and intellectual responses that its remarkable power resides.

I use the term "intellectual" quite purposefully here, because if one looks to the play to provide "counter strategies" (Breslauer's phrase) in the literal sense, one will be disappointed. "Twilight" is not an explicitly polemical treatise on the roots of our city's multicultural crises, that's true. However, to imply that it lacks conceptual rigor and cohesiveness is to do the play a serious disservice.

As a scholar and teacher, I am wholeheartedly committed to the efficacy of rational analysis, and Breslauer is correct to point to the "economic apartheid" in Los Angeles that contributed to the tragic events of last spring and that will surely spawn similar explosions in the future if we aren't careful. However, as a humanist who has spent most of my adult life studying the diverse literary voices that mark our nation's artistic heritage, I continually run up against the brutal, undeniable, fundamental fact that racism and other prejudices based upon difference are ultimately grounded in a denial of the humanity of our fellows.

"Twilight" confronts us at every turn with that humanity--whether embodied in the forthright Maria, who demands that her fellow jurors (and, indirectly, we in the audience) own up to their biases and fulfill their responsibility in administering the law; or Elaine Brown as she struggles with desperate energy to argue a young black man out of suicidal armed confrontation; or Chris Oh, whose medical training serves to make him even more painfully aware of the horror that has befallen his father; or the anonymous white talent agent, whose class and cultural distance from the lives of those involved in the "riot" do not blind him to his own complicity in the racial dilemma that the United States cannot seem to acknowledge, much less solve.

No, I didn't leave the Taper with more concrete answers to our ongoing social malaise. I did, however, leave with a fuller appreciation--in both my heart and my head--of the power of the human voice to speak many truths, even if they don't all fit together, and of the power of the human imagination to encompass the diversity that so much in our society tells us can lead only to destruction.

In the last year, I and my friends and colleagues have frequently spoken about an abiding numbness with which we've wrestled in the wake of the Rodney G. King decision and the accompanying violence last year.

As people sensitive to oppression have had to do so often in this country, it seems that we had, each in his or her own way, battened down our emotional hatches in psychic self-defense.

Watching and, more to the point, "listening" to Anna Deavere Smith's "Twilight"--whether in laughter or in grief--made me think and feel more deeply about my city than I have in a long time.

That, it seems to me, is what we all need to do these days; and in driving, enticing, dragging, cajoling and carrying the audience to this point, "Twilight" accomplishes everything that I would ask of a work of art.

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