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Television Review

Powerful 'Twilight' Revisits Post-Riots L.A.

April 28, 2001|DARYL H. MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"It was like the end of the world," Anna Deavere Smith says at the beginning of "Twilight: Los Angeles," quoting one of the more than 300 people she interviewed after the city's 1992 riots.

Soon, her voice changes register and her body adopts a new vocabulary as she assumes the personality of another interviewee. On and on she goes, shifting shapes as she personifies 28 of her subjects, from community activists to police officers, from violence-scarred shop owners to Hollywood and Beverly Hills types haunted by guilt for having emerged unscathed.

This remarkable piece of documentary theater debuted at the Mark Taper Forum in 1993. Now retooled as an 84-minute film, it airs Sunday on local PBS stations--exactly nine years after rioting greeted the acquittal of four police officers involved in the beating of Rodney King, a motorist they had stopped for speeding. The intervening years vanish as Smith begins talking, accompanied by footage of Los Angeles aflame in the April twilight.

Sharing what she learned in the smoldering aftermath of that event, Smith becomes an LAPD tactical specialist who demonstrates proper baton technique, an assailant of truck driver Reginald Denny who breaks into jittery laughter as he tries to explain the pent-up rage that exploded after the acquittal, and a Korean American former shop owner who punctuates each bitter sentence with a slap on her tabletop.

Several of the subjects have been swapped for new ones since the Taper presentation, and though a couple of them are missed, the piece communicates as powerfully as it did in those gripping, harrowing nights in the theater.

In the film's most haunting juxtaposition, Smith appears first as the irrepressibly sunny Denny, who says that he wants to dedicate a room in his house to keepsakes of all the goodness showered on him as he recuperated from his beating. "It's not gonna be a sad room, it's gonna be a happy room," he says. Moments later, Smith is activist Paul Parker, who also envisions a room--this one documenting social inequities and police harassment. "It's gonna be my no justice, no peace room," he declares.

On stage, Smith fluidly shifted from character to character by donning representative articles of clothing and changing her body posture. In director Marc Levin's film, only a few of these stunning transformations occur on camera.

Yet the film gains immediacy from the archival footage shown between Smith's characterizations (at the Taper, such footage could be seen only on a bank of video monitors, which had a distancing effect). The film also includes some of Smith's subjects themselves, which allows us to compare her reproductions to the originals.

As the film draws to a close, Smith's subjects turn to the subject of hope. They want to believe that a new day will dawn after this perpetual twilight, yet they wonder whether it can happen in a city that has yet to own up to its racial and economic divisions.

So, the ending, in a sense, remains unfinished--for only the city's residents can write it.

*

* "Twilight" airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on KCET and KVCR. The network has rated it TV-14-V-L (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14, with special advisories for violent content and coarse language).

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