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Insights From a Perpetual Outsider

The creator of 'Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992' examines the riots' echoes.

April 28, 2002|ANNA DEAVERE SMITH

Summer 1992.

Gordon Davidson, artistic director of the Mark Taper Forum, took me out to breakfast in New York City after seeing my play "Fires in the Mirror," about riots in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in August 1991. Those riots were the consequence of a buildup of tensions between blacks and Jews, sparked by the death of a young black boy, Gavin Cato, and the murder of a young Hasidic scholar, Yankel Rosenbaum.

Some would call the death of Cato a murder; others would call it an accident. Some would call it a reckless accident. Most people would consent that Rosenbaum was murdered. Some people would call what happened in Crown Heights a riot, others would say it was an occupied territory. There were Jews who called the events a pogrom.

How do you even begin to have a conversation when the terms themselves are a cause for dispute? And so they should be. After all, history is made by the way the stories are told, and particularly by whoever has the power to put the words in print, or some other form of dissemination. Being a student of language, I was intrigued to come to Los Angeles, and to work with Davidson and his theater to create a play about the riots in LA.

"Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992" was to be based on interviews, of which I would perform excerpts in a one-woman show. I was already aware that I could not start an interview by using the word "riot." I would ask first to see how the interviewee labeled the "events." It was variously called, at the time, a "riot," "a "rebellion," an "uprising," a "revolution." In political circles, where language tends to be most calculated, it was called the "events of April 29."

Soon after my arrival, two Korean American graduate students at UCLA contacted me. My heart raced when the conversation began. "We heard what you are doing, and we are afraid you're going to get it wrong." Here we go again, I thought to myself.

I have cast myself as an outsider in my artistic life. Labeling my life's work "On the Road: A Search for American Character," it is my goal to try to tell stories from multiple points of view, which involves going out of my "place" to get a point of view other than my own. It is a passion that I have, born out of my own position as a girl growing up in segregation. I see the dangers of being relegated to a "place." For me, the disaster of "placement" is an intellectual and spiritual disaster. Clearly there are other disasters--being put in your place can trap you in a social class, wind you up incarcerated by the blinders of poverty, or wealth for that matter.

I am used to being seen as the outsider who has no business telling a story that is not my own. But that morning, as I held my breath in my hotel room with my phone tight to my ear, the sentence did not end as I expected: "We are afraid you're going to get it wrong, so we want to help you." These students subsequently took me around L.A., showing me "their city," sharing with me "their story," and introducing me to people who never would have talked to me on their own. They translated stories; they sat with me across from interviewees, urging the stories out.

In a fractious society such as ours, who can speak for whom? Who can author the story? How in the world will we ever author the story that is big enough to include all of us, or are we only to be a string of little stories, are we left to be a niche culture? The fact is, we have to find partners to take us and move us around a variety of stories.

While in Los Angeles, I came to believe that some of us--not all of us, but some of us--need to come out of our safe houses of identity and meet each other in the crossroads of ambiguity. It's not very safe out in the middle where you dare to cross the line, but it is creative, it is exciting.

It was Tennessee Williams who gave us the romantic idea of the "kindness of strangers." In L.A., it was the brilliance of strangers that I found so compelling.

Twilight Bey is the person for whom "Twilight" is named. He is a former gang member. I was immediately interested in him because of the confidence of his stroll. I knew I needed to learn to walk like that, calmly, no sudden movements, easy, focused and yet light on my feet. His walk was alert, it was alive, it was awake. It needed to be. My plan was to walk where I did not belong, to unknown places, always with the possibility of crossing over a line I did not know existed. I went from a Beverly Hills real estate agent's office, decorated down to the tiniest paper clip, to the gang-war torn gym at Nickerson Gardens. I knew that at any moment I could be crossing a line that was dangerous to cross. Yet the experience was rich beyond words.

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