One critic calls her the most exciting individual in current American theater. Another complains her work is emotionally unengaging and analytically shallow. She's been praised as a keen social observer of Los Angeles and condemned as an outsider who has exploited the city's tragedy. Whatever their opinions, people are talking about Anna Deavere Smith and her one-woman show, "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992." Her performance about the violence following the verdict in the Rodney G. King-beating trial, completes a five-week run at the Mark Taper next Sunday.
Smith, 42, sprang to prominence last year, with another one-woman show about a racial clash, "Fires in the Mirror." Shortly after the verdict in the first King-beating trial, the Taper's artistic director, Gordon Davidson, saw her New York Public Theater production about the conflict between Orthodox Jews and African-Americans in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. He invited Smith to come to Los Angeles and mount a similar effort. "Twilight" is the result of some 175 interviews Smith conducted over a nine-month period with Angelenos whose lives were directly or indirectly touched by the riots.
Smith presents 26 characters--Koreans, African-Americans, Anglos and Latinos. She performs their words verbatim from transcripts of her taped interviews, portraying well-known figures like former LAPD Chief Daryl F. Gates, who complains about being the symbol of police brutality, and ordinary citizens like Elvira Evers, an expectant mother wounded by a gunshot during the violence following the Simi Valley verdict. Smith gives us a human glimpse of truck driver Reginald O. Denny, who describes his early days of recovery after being beaten at the intersection of Florence and Normandie. And she takes us inside the jury room of the federal civil-rights trial as Maria, one of the jurors, gives a humorous and profane accounting of the panel's deliberations.
Smith, born and raised in Baltimore, calls herself, "a repeater rather than a mimic." A 1977 graduate of San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre, she got an odd lesson in the politics of race when casting agents said she was too light-skinned to play black characters. She soon started writing plays and teaching; in 1983, she began her series of interview-based performances--she calls this work "On the Road: A Search for American Character."
Smith currently teaches drama at Stanford, where she often has her students recreate TV talk shows in the verbatim style she uses in "Twilight." She is tall and thin, a strict vegetarian whose face speaks of discipline. In conversation backstage at the Taper, Smith is alternately animated and guarded, at once quick to answer and then cautious, careful in crafting a reply.
Question: Do you remember what you were doing, and how you felt when you heard about the verdict in the original Rodney King-beating trial?
Answer: I was in New York, and I was in rehearsal for the opening of "Fires in the Mirror." That means that I was in the theater all the time, in a sort of black box. When I got home from rehearsal, there were all these messages on my machine, from friends, telling me what had happened in Los Angeles. My show was set to open, but we closed down--postponed it--just like everybody else. I was actually kind of glad. It made more sense to go to Times Square and see what was happening than to be performing, so that's exactly what I did.
It's hard to say what my emotional reactions were to the verdict. Just that I wasn't surprised. It was as if the steam had been let out of a high-pressure cooker. You know, I lived here in the late '80s, and taught at the University of Southern California, and I thought that it was such a peculiar environment. I think a lot of L.A. is something like USC--this incredible white culture living in the midst of color, and no obvious reaction to it at all. I mean, they have guards at the gate at USC--guards at the gate of a major university! And the guards chase young black boys away--I've seen it, chasing 8-year-old boys. And I don't think that is organic, or natural or good. So I suppose that the verdict did not surprise me.
Q: When you were asked to come to L.A. and make a performance about the city exploding after the verdict, did you have any hesitation?
A: No, I didn't hesitate, because my other project had been about a similar situation. I was thinking a lot about race and the differences between people, and I wanted to come, to see the city, to know what happened here.
Q: What did you expect to find here, and what surprised you?
A: I didn't expect anything. I go in without really knowing. I do what I call a search for discovery of character, which is the stuff you don't know. So I knew very little about the people I interviewed, and that is part of the relationship I developed with them.