'Twilight' benefits from the retelling Review: Anna Deavere Smith's gripping monologues from an urban riot are every bit the tour de force they ever were.

February 04, 1997|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Watching Anna Deavere Smith's "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992" in the theater where Lincoln was shot leaves you with an even more unsettling feeling than this extraordinary one-woman show evoked on Broadway three years ago.

In the shadow of Lincoln's black-draped box at Ford's Theatre in Washington, Smith's examination of the riots that broke out after the first Rodney King trial offers a painful commentary on the relatively short distance this country has traveled since Lincoln struggled to bridge the racial divide more than a century ago.

This gripping, tour-de-force show is different in other ways as well. It still consists of a series of monologues in which Smith reproduces verbatim the vocal patterns, gestures and words of more than three dozen people involved in, or affected by, the riots -- people ranging from Reginald Denny, the white truck driver beaten during the riots; to opera singer Jessye Norman; to Korean merchants (the latter striking a chillingly timely chord in light of the recent violence against Koreans in Baltimore).

Working with a new director, Sharon Ott, at California's Berkeley Repertory Theatre, where this version debuted a year ago, Smith has restructured and re-edited the show, replacing 10 of the interviews with a half dozen others and devising a new, overtly theatrical second-act scene in which she imagines a dinner table conversation among several of her interview subjects, with the explanation -- projected on the back wall -- that "these words were said but these people have not, to date, been in such a room together."

One of the new participants at this dinner is a Berkeley chef who propounds the theory of the table as a "civilizing place." The theater can also be a civilizing place, and that, surely, is one of Smith's intentions in creating "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992." The imaginary dinner scene unmistakably reinforces this notion as Paul Parker, the militant chairman of a group called the Free the LA Four Plus Defense Committee, breaks bread with a diverse gathering of diners including ex-U.S. Senator Bill Bradley and Elaine Brown, former head of the Black Panthers.

Though this scene -- in which Smith shifts personae every time she sits in a different chair -- clearly demonstrates the Baltimore-born actress/playwright's transformational finesse, her chameleon-like talent is evident throughout. If anything, her segues from one character to another seem even more finely honed than they were in New York. Sometimes she appears to change personalities in mid-sentence, delineating the different characters through costume changes as minor as donning a gold-trimmed sweater (for Rodney King's aunt) or a red bandana (for one of Denny's assailants), but using body language and vocal inflections so distinct that she almost seems to change gender, race, age and even size before your eyes.

Some of her original portraits remain the most powerful: Denny, a gentle, grinning man whose account of his ordeal is filled with gratitude for the "love and compassion" that came his way afterward; Elvira Evers, a Panamanian woman who tells the remarkable story of being nine months pregnant when a stray bullet lodged in her fetus' elbow, sparing both her life and that of the unborn baby; and Maria, a juror in the subsequent federal civil rights trial who -- in a kind of microcosm of the rest of the show -- re-enacts the deliberations, juror by juror.

Another change in the production comes at the very end when Smith takes the part of Twilight Bey, the gang member and truce architect who gives the show its name. Just before Bey's speech comes to a close, Smith removes the gang member's zippered Boss jacket, replaces it with a leather one, picks up a gym bag and subtly alters his voice until it becomes her own.

Smith, herself, didn't intrude in the 1994 version of the show, but here, she allows herself to share the words of this wise young man who knows that darkness must be re-defined and harmony can only be achieved by understanding others.

The program lists Smith as one of the show's earlier characters. That section, however, was omitted on opening night -- and wisely so. Smith expresses a personal, yearning point of view more than adequately in the compilation and performance of her interviews with others.

Early on, one of Smith's interviewees tells her: "You can repeat every word I say." And indeed, Smith has described herself as a "repeater." Heeding Hamlet's instructions to the players, she holds the mirror up to nature and doesn't balk at showing us a reflection that's far from pretty. As those who saw her previous work, "Fires in the Mirror," at Center Stage are aware, by combining docudrama and monodrama, Smith has forged a new form of theater that exposes the American character one interview at a time, and in the process, shocks us into disturbing recognition.

'Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992'

Where: Ford's Theatre, 511 Tenth St., N.W., Washington

When: 7: 30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, matinees at 1 p.m. Thursdays and 3 p.m. Sunday. Through Feb. 14

Tickets: $24-$36

Call: (202) 347-4833

Pub Date: 2/04/97

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