Searing take on L.A. riots

April 28, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

There's no question about Anna Deavere Smith's great talent as an actress, writer and chronicler of American life.

Nor is there any question about the success of "Twilight: Los Angeles 1992," her searing one-woman play - a blend of performance, social commentary and journalism. Her chronicle of the riots that ravaged the nation's second largest city was a triumph when it made its debut on stage in 1993.

And so, the only question remaining is how well the stage version made the transition to film. "Twilight: Los Angeles" will be broadcast on PBS tomorrow night, and the answer is, it translates very well. Director Marc Levin, a Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner for his film "Slam," uses film and video to create not only a canvas for Smith, but also a historic and cultural context for her brilliant work.

"Twilight" is narratives within narratives. Smith said she interviewed 288 people in the Los Angeles area about the riots. Using only their words as the script, she portrays dozens of the people she interviewed, although "portrays" doesn't do justice to the transformation we see before our eyes.

It's as if Smith, a former Baltimorean, morphs from one into the other: a Beverly Hills real estate agent, Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates, Rodney King's aunt, a Korean owner of a grocery store that was destroyed, an African-American community activist who calls Koreans "roaches."

Documentary footage of the days of rage in Los Angeles - ranging from the beating of Rodney King, to overhead helicopter shots of the city in flames after the officers who did the beating were acquitted - is intercut throughout Smith's performance. The images create their own historical narrative, as well as constructing a video caldron that boils red-hot with the characters Smith creates.

The overall effect isn't just to bring Los Angeles in 1992 back to life on screen, but also to make you truly understand the concept of cultural diversity, and the ways in which group identity and history shape the way you see the world.

There is no longer one America - if such a thing ever existed. There are many Americas today, and few writers are teaching that truth better than Smith.

`Twilight: Los Angeles', When: Tomorrow night at 9.

Where: MPT (Channels 22 and 67) and WETA (Channel 22).

In brief: An acclaimed play makes a successful transition to screen.

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