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'Twilight' Time

Revisiting The 1992 L.a. Riots On Tv

April 28, 2001|MICHELE WILLENS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — Anna Deavere Smith--writer, actress, chronicler of living events--is in a convertible, driving the mostly healed streets of Los Angeles. She is seeking remnants of the riots, set off nine years ago by the acquittals of the police officers who came upon Rodney G. King one fateful night.

"The questions we're asking," she says in the televised version of "Twilight"--her one-woman play about the impact and the implications of the riots on the city and the people who live here--"are, has anything changed? Was enough attention paid?"

Now the question becomes, will attention be paid on Sunday when PBS presents the second offering (the first was "The Man Who Came to Dinner" in October; next month comes A.R. Gurney's "Far East") of its Stage on Screen series?

Smith has worked hard to give viewers something, if not entirely new, surely rethought. As in her stage performance, she dons a hat here, grabs a prop there, while transforming herself into more than 20 figures directly or peripherally involved in the riots (speaking their actual words gleaned from hundreds of hours of interviews).

But now, viewers will also see and feel more: the harrowing footage of the King beating, the subsequent Reginald Denny beating, a city in flames. And there are in-hindsight interviews with some of the principals looking back with anger, denial, and perhaps some rewriting here or there?

"It's not so much revisionism," says Smith, sitting in the Royalton Hotel in Manhattan on a rare break in her schedule, "but I was surprised how much more palpable and painful the riots are to people of color. I found that white people had largely recovered. At the time of the riots, it was, 'Oh, my God, how can this happen to my city, we have to get down and help these people, have we forgotten what happened in Watts?' The fact is, their lives were threatened but not disrupted. For those whose lives were not in order in the first place, they still can't forget."

For those who choose to remember, there are 84 minutes featuring Smith in the guise of everyone from then-Police Chief Daryl Gates to King's Aunt Angela ("We must find justice for my brother's son") to an anonymous Hollywood agent ("I'm eating my Caesar salad at the Grill") to Harvard's Cornel West ("I'm a prisoner of hope") to jurors in the officers' two trials. For the screen version, the play's words have been pared by half, some of the original interviewees "have hit the [cutting-room] floor," and the whole package has been given a direct, front-to-end telling of the riots.

"We're telling the story in a different way, trying to build a narrative," says Smith. "So my choices had to do with how to make it most effective/relevant/have a shelf life. If we think about someone picking it up 50 years from now, will it mean something? I can't assume people will have the same experience as those who came to see it at the Mark Taper Forum a year after the riots."

One might think with such a self-contained talent as Smith, a director would hardly be necessary. But, in fact, she was determined this telling not be just a filmed version of her play (as were past efforts of, say, Spalding Gray, John Leguizamo, Eric Bogosian) and sought outside expertise. She found it in documentary maker Marc Levin ("Slam").

"She can be a headstrong artist, sure," says Levin, "but she was open to the creative challenge of making this something different: integrating her process with archival footage, hip-hop music and having the opportunity to revisit some of the people involved. I warned her that some might say we've diluted or even polluted the purity of what she created on stage. But she opened herself up to that risk. And I learned that one person embodying all these others is critical to this particular story, because it is saying each one of us could be all these people."

When Smith first burst on stage as a force of one embodying the many, she was unique. Less so today: Currently off-Broadway, Pamela Gien portrays about a dozen colorful characters in "The Syringa Tree"; on Broadway, Irish actors Sean Campion and Conleth Hill portray myriad roles in "Stones in His Pockets"; even "The Vagina Monologues" has occasionally been called Anna Deavere Smith-like.

"She's been a great inspiration to me," says Gien, who actually starred in a play written by Smith in the late 1980s. "It's so rare for women to take her kind of journey, to take such artistic responsibility. When I felt afraid about doing all the characters myself in 'The Syringa Tree,' her own courage would come to me. She's made this kind of performance acceptable. Beyond that, her works have resonance because they are about something greater than ourselves, and that's what I'm trying to do here." (Gien's play is about growing up in South Africa.)

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