This has become the season when we put “reality” onstage. I mean — weak laugh — there’s precious little of it in Facebook/social/Congress, amirite? For instance, it’s bizarre that not one but two documentary-theater experiments made it to Broadway: Is This a Room, with text from an FBI recording, and Dana H., a performance lip-synced to a spliced-together conversation. Using text pulled from documents or interviews isn’t new, but it has become suddenly and simultaneously urgent. In the fall of 2021, these many artistic representations of What Actually Happened seem intent on teaching us something. What is it?
To guide us in that thinking, no one is more important than the docudramatist Anna Deavere Smith. She started the ball rolling: Her early ’90s one-woman shows Fires in the Mirror (about the Crown Heights riots) and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 (about the L.A. uprisings) were vital, popular, and culturally powerful. She interviewed dozens, even hundreds, of people on all sides of the unrest, then performed the resulting collage herself. The work elevated her past the usual categories: more humane than a journalist, more capacious than an actor, more accurate than a playwright. In 1997, she moderated the legendary August Wilson–Robert Brustein debate, the only public intellectual who could. Other politically conscious interview-based work like The Laramie Project and The Exonerated would come in the years to follow, but when we think of reality onstage, we must think first of her, a woman who recorded then imitated many voices, an actor who used the solo-show format to embody the multiple voices of America’s conflict zones.
So the first thing you notice about the Signature Theatre’s excellent revival of Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 is that Anna isn’t there. The remount shifts the fundamental equation of her practice: Smith no longer plays all the parts. She is still making and performing other oral histories using her “channeling” method — 2016’s Notes From the Field saw her playing everyone from high-school teachers to John Lewis — but revisiting 1992’s Fires (as the Signature did in 2019) or 1993’s Twilight called for someone and something new. For Twilight, she wrote an updated script, some of which explicitly connects the L.A. crisis to our current one, and the director, Taibi Magar, chose five actors to fill Smith’s one pair of shoes.
In many ways, the revision is a relief. I still remember the shock of encountering Smith’s work for the first time — it was in college, and her shows shaped what I thought was possible in the theater of social action. Now, I revisit those ’90s pieces with my own students, and I notice a shift in how they’re seen both by the students and by my own changing mind. When you watch them on old PBS videos, the Anna-at-the-center version still impresses with its virtuosity: Smith has a precisely tuned ear and a long interest in dialect and pronunciation, and the way they transmit personality. Her text collages keep exciting us with their sheer information and seriousness and density; there’s a moral thrill in the work that will never fade. But in her solo work, Smith’s ability to “contain multitudes” must also become part of the story, forming its essential if unspoken humanist message. Even when her interviews reveal deep racial and cultural divisions, her interviewees somehow meet in her, and audiences come away with the sensation that they have seen a path to reconciliation. I find it harder now to be comforted by that particular illusion. And also, my response to the theater-of-impersonation has shifted. I couldn’t point to the moment when it happened over the past (almost) three decades, but Smith “doing” the accented voice of a Korean-American shopkeeper now lands differently.
In the new version of Twilight, the company has engaged with that “differently” directly. There are now conventions about which actor speaks which lines: For the most part, the Black actors Wesley T. Jones and Tiffany Rachelle Stewart play the Black interviewees, and other identities also approximately line up with the cast’s identities — Francis Jue plays Korean shopkeepers and the scholar Elaine Kim, and the superb Elena Hurst is assigned anyone Latinx. It’s not rigid, and the production does grow playful with its casting logic: At one point, Jue becomes Jessye Norman in a gorgeous taffeta cape, and the white guy Karl Kenzler seems to be suiting up to play Charlton Heston, only to be nudged out of the way by Jones. You could write a dissertation about how the show negotiates these sensitive issues — there’s clearly a whole ethical ecology in place, built and tended by Smith, Magar, and the cast.
These choices actually help bring our focus back to the content, the attempt to explain what happened in Los Angeles in the awful spring of 1992. Smith interviewed more than 300 people, approaching them with a thousand questions. Why were the Los Angeles police officers acquitted for assaulting motorist Rodney King when there was video of the beating? Why did a convenience-store owner, Soon Ja Du, shoot 15-year-old Latasha Harlins? What was the target of the resulting destruction? How do activists describe the uprising, as a triumph or a failure? To try to understand the mare’s nest of racial anger and state violence, Smith spoke to the police chief who was too busy at a fundraiser to attend to the riots, Rodney King’s aunt, Soon Ja Du’s lawyer, a truck driver dragged from his cab and subsequently rescued, jurors, journalists, bystanders, a real-estate agent, a talent agent, the titular peace negotiator Twilight Bey, chef Alice Waters (for some reason) … there seems to be no end to her roster. Completeness and complexity are two aspects of any truth, and so to actually describe Twilight would take two and a half hours, exactly as long as it takes to watch the show.
Time in Twilight passes swiftly because every second is wound tight, tight, tight. Magar’s production glides along under Riccardo Hernández’s billboard-size screens, and even with new material, Smith’s script races forward like a thriller. All five actors have standout moments, though it’s interesting how much they can sound like Smith herself, echoing her booming, exaggerated delivery. The screens above them are a source of terrible tension onstage, as they display the news and surveillance footage so frequently referred to — including both the King beating and the Harlins killing. Each time, the grainy video plays and the show stops. You may think that you’ve had experience in these last 30 years of watching the unwatchable, but nothing prepares you for seeing a child get shot. I think these videos hint at the reason for our current passion for reality in the theater. I don’t think it’s just that we live in a slurry of the almost true, fake news, lie adjacent. I think it’s that we need to do penance for our greatest shared sin: our short attention span. Reality is reality wherever you find it, but the theater is also a place of enforced silence, thought, duration, and confrontation. Even if the thing onstage in front of you is unendurable; you cannot turn the page or refresh the feed. You are stuck in there with the reality of what happened, and for the all-too-brief span of the production, you will not be allowed to look away.
Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 is at the Signature Theatre until November 14.