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Artists, actors creatively reengage with '92 L.A. riots, 'Twilight'

For many, Anna Deavere Smith's work remains an influential touchstone of the uprising, which are being explored artistically across town for the 20th anniversary.

April 29, 2012|By Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times
  • The Katselas Theatre Company’s take on “Twilight” features a multiethnic cast and lively choreography.
The Katselas Theatre Company’s take on “Twilight”… (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles…)

When Anna Deavere Smith first staged her one-woman docu-play "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992," a myopic journalist pointedly asked her, "Don't you think your work will have a brief shelf life?"

Two decades later, the answer is "in fact, no," Smith said by phone. And the reason her work is still relevant, she continued, is "because this problem has been around for a long time."

That problem, which "Twilight" memorably illuminated, was the smoldering ethnic and social tensions that blew up in a fireball of rage in Los Angeles on April 29, 1992.

For performing artists in the two decades since the riots there has been a parallel problem: how to wrestle with and portray events that deeply scarred Los Angeles and shook up its self-image as a bastion of multicultural tolerance, events that many Angelenos are too young to remember and others might prefer to forget.

"There was a complete shift in the way people in Los Angeles viewed themselves that day," said visual-performance artist Harry Gamboa Jr., whose 37-minute video "L.A. Familia," made in the wake of the '92 civil disturbance and completed in 1993, depicts a displaced family whose dysfunction mirrors their imploding city.

"I had grown up in the 1950s looking at B movies and various disaster movies, and L.A. had taken on mimicking its own myth," Gamboa said of his film, which he calls "an absurd narrative of loss and pseudo-redemption."

This spring, 20 years after a tsunami of arson, looting and racially targeted violence swept the city after the acquittal of four white police officers in the beating of black motorist Rodney King, a handful of local performing artists and actors are reengaging with L.A.'s worst-ever civic trauma and its complicated legacy. Some are creating new work. Others are revisiting Smith's Tony-nominated play in search of fresh insights.

At the 80-odd-seat Skylight Theatre in Los Feliz Village, Katselas Theatre Company is reprising "Twilight" with a multiethnic cast of 25 performing many of the characters originally all portrayed by Smith in the play's world-premiere staging at the Mark Taper Forum in June 1993, on Broadway a year later, and in a 2000 PBS film version.

Based on Smith's hundreds of hours of interviews with nearly 300 real-life subjects, the dramatis personae included former Police Chief Daryl Gates, truck driver and mob victim Reginald Denny, a female Korean storekeeper and former Black Panther leader Elaine Brown.

But full casting isn't the new production's only twist. In director Leila Vatan's staging of "Twilight," a simulation of the riot involves actors tossing furniture, bouncing off walls in anger and hauling off a TV set while glowering menacingly at the audience. At one point, a white actor playing a police officer kicks a black rioter in the head. Break-dancing and other kinetic choreography are used to represent riot-related actions that Smith's work evoked but didn't explicitly represent.

"What [Smith] did is amazing because she embodied each character. But to create the experience of the riots and then get people's perspective, it's very moving," said John R. "J.R" Davidson, who plays Keith "Kiki" Watson, an African American ex-Marine and married father who took part in Denny's near-fatal beating but later repented of his actions.

Katselas isn't the only local company letting the riot's emotions bubble to the surface once more. Just a mile and a half away, at the Company of Angels in the Los Feliz-Silverlake area, the nonprofit theater's playwrights group is presenting "L.A. ViewsV:April 29, 1992," a series of eight short plays by different authors all set during the time of the disturbance.

Across town, Watts Village Theater Company has launched "Riot/Rebellion," a multi-year project exploring three episodes of L.A. civil unrest. It will develop performances and site-specific interventions based on eyewitness accounts of the 1965 Watts uprising as well as deal with the 1992 conflagration and the 1943 Zoot Suit riots, in which non-Latino white U.S. servicemen brawled with Mexican Americans and African Americans.

Guillermo Avilés-Rodríguez, Watts Village's artistic director, said one of the project's main goals is to help preserve the historical memory and suppressed viewpoints of L.A.'s marginalized ethnic communities. "It's all about who controls the narrative," Avilés-Rodríguez said. "The first draft [of the Watts riots] was written by the media, a media that knew about as much as the media knows now about Watts, which is not a lot."

Yet the small number of arts initiatives related to the riots' anniversary surprises Gary Grossman, Katselas' producer-artistic director. When company members first approached him about doing "Twilight" this year, Grossman told them he didn't think he could obtain the rights because other L.A. theaters would be clamoring for them.

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