Two years ago this weekend, Los Angeles was burning. One year ago, Anna Deavere Smith was busy preparing her one-woman show about the people who witnessed those fires: "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992," which opened at the Mark Taper Forum last June.
Now "Twilight" is on Broadway. And Smith's compilation of re-enacted interviews with a wide variety of individuals who had something to say about the events of April, 1992, is a big hit with New York critics, if not yet a sellout with Broadway audiences.
The "Twilight" that's in New York, however, is not the same show Angelenos saw.
In Los Angeles, Smith played 26 roles. While this may sound like a formidable undertaking, it was a snap compared to what she's doing in New York. There, she's playing 42 roles. Only 20 of the New York characterizations were created in Los Angeles. For New York, Smith dropped six characters and added 22.
"I had a lot of memorizing to do when I got here," Smith recalled during a phone interview from New York last week.
Her journey to Broadway took a long time. Smith, who lives in Northern California, was in New York opening "Fires in the Mirror," a one-woman show about a racial incident in New York, when rioting broke out in Los Angeles. "Fires" was a hit, but it never went to Broadway. Yet it inspired Taper artistic director Gordon Davidson to ask Smith to do a similar show about L.A.--a decision that prompted a few local artists to criticize the selection of a non-Angeleno who wasn't even in town during the incidents she would be depicting.
Smith spent much of the next year in Los Angeles, preparing "Twilight." Emily Mann, who had previously created the theatrical docudrama "Execution of Justice," was brought in as director. Meanwhile, events continued to erupt as Smith worked.
A verdict was reached in the federal trial of the police officers in the Rodney King beating case just two months before "Twilight" opened, but the officers weren't sentenced until a month after it closed. As she performed, the city was still "on the edge" over the events she was depicting, she said. "The audience was still trying to get over a trauma. And I knew that I would be part of the dramatic tension I was establishing." Another layer of tension was added by the fact that the subjects of Smith's research were likely to be in the audience in Los Angeles--not a possibility that crops up very often in New York.
After the Taper "Twilight" had closed, Smith attended the closing arguments in the Reginald Denny beating trial, which affected her perspective, she said. And the end of that trial gave her access to certain figures who weren't previously reachable, such as Denny co-assailant Keith Watson, one of the characters added for New York.
It wasn't just new characters who were imported for New York. A new director, George C. Wolfe, took over as well. The new version opened March 23 at the theater Wolfe runs, the New York Public Theatre, then moved to Broadway, where it opened at the Cort Theatre on April 17.
"The stakes were high in New York because it's the artistic mecca," Smith said, "but the stakes were just as high in Los Angeles in a different way. There was a lot of emotion in L.A., and I really cherish that experience."
That emotion came from many different sources, she said. Growing up on the East Coast, she had thought of race primarily in black/white terms, but the multicultural dimensions of the events in L.A. "began to shake up what I thought race was. It's not a two-pronged story."
Her newfound awareness of this subject proved contagious. Referring to Wolfe, she said that "there were times when his head was spinning" over this subject. She said she heard and read criticism that in the L.A. production she failed to arrive at any particular conclusion, but "I was very cautious of the kind of people who wanted to wrap it all up. There hasn't been that much in the past 20 years that has encouraged people to go beyond the bounds of ethnicity," so she felt it was her job simply to let all viewpoints be heard.
Her experience in Los Angeles was a form of "community theater," she said, hastily adding that she intends nothing pejorative by using that phrase. "I was there to be a part of the L.A. community." Consequently, she conducted a large number of post-play discussions in Los Angeles.
Don't look for such discussions after performances of "Twilight" on Broadway. "In New York, the boundaries between me and the audience are much clearer. And there is a point in the show in which my point of view becomes much more apparent than it was in Los Angeles"--or, indeed, in her "Fires in the Mirror." She believes that the New York "Twilight" is more "conclusive" than the Los Angeles one.