The Dusk of Civilization

Anna Deavere Smith delivers a heart-clutching dialogue about race in Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992

"Open your eyes. Watch what's going on," suggests Elvira Evers, as the first act of Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 draws to a close. She's a "general worker and cashier," one of some three dozen real-life characters whose stories create this odyssey through the post-Rodney King riot-torn city. She has just related in chilling, mesmerizing detail how she was shot, and how her unborn baby literally caught the bullet with its elbow, thereby saving them both.

Like the others portrayed in Anna Deavere Smith's one-woman tour de force (produced by Berkeley Rep, directed by Sharon Ott), Evers and the situation she describes are brilliantly illuminated and drawn into sharp focus for a heart-clutching instant. It's like walking a road at night when suddenly the eerie gray landscape is awash with light from a flare or a match, and there, right in front of you, someone is looking deeply into your eyes.

When the 80-or-so-minute act ends shortly thereafter with the words of opera star Jessye Norman, the show feels complete, powerful, and electrifying. I wish Smith and director Ott had left matters there. As rich and thoughtfully provocative as the second act is, dealing largely with the riot's aftermath, it extends the evening for another 80-plus minutes and is simply more than most of us can take.

But Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 may turn out to be the definitive document of the troubled days after the not-guilty verdict in the trial of the police officers who beat Rodney King. It may also provide the country with what we've been craving so acutely since the O.J. Simpson verdict: a real dialogue about race.

Not that Twilight is merely a conversation or a series of conversations. It's a documentary play built in blocks of scenes with extraordinary care and skill. Think of the way a quilt is created, distinctive square by distinctive square: Stitched together, they form yet another unique and coherent whole. Or think of snow, each flake supposedly different. Imagine the singularity of each crystalline entity, and then marvel at the uniformity of the blanket covering the landscape.

We meet the characters in rapid-fire succession -- the famous and the ordinary -- from Jessye Norman to Rodney King's aunt to bookkeeper Katie Miller to Beverly Hills real estate agent/silicone implant expert Elaine Young to Reginald Denny to Korean liquor store owner and gunshot victim Walter Park. And so forth.

Needless to say, where Twilight differs from documentary film is that it is performed live by one person. Which means we are experiencing everything in the theatrical present as filtered through Smith, a critically important factor.

But first, by way of background, this is her second outing in the Bay Area. Her previous effort, Fires in the Mirror (also produced by Berkeley Rep), launched what is becoming a series of theatrical works called "On the Road: A Search for American Character." Fires documents the racial turmoil between Hasidic Jews and blacks in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. In it such flamboyant players as the Rev. Al Sharpton strut their stuff. I recall being more impressed than moved by the stylized portraits.

Twilight opened on Broadway in the spring of 1994 and has since been revised by Smith. Under Ott's sensitive and painstaking direction this time around, the artifice of Fires has largely fallen away. Smith herself seems to disappear as each character comes forward. She manages to capture perfectly the slightly off-kilter way with which people handle tragedy and terror. That which is humorous tilts toward hysteria, as seen in the brilliantly funny segment on how confused upper-middle-class whites gathered at the venerable Beverly Hills Hotel, where they felt "safe and sound." That which is tragic, such as the anguish of the anonymous Simi Valley juror, is heart-piercing.

Structurally Smith has created a kaleidoscope, stacking such testimony as the haunting nightmares of an eyewitness -- who was never called for the trial -- against the cold logic of Tactical Sgt. Charles Duke, who explains excessive force by the police as a natural byproduct of the city's having outlawed the deadly choke hold. She gives us former Police Chief Darryl Gates at a Brentwood fund-raiser, reluctantly explaining to his hosts, "We got a riot [brewing], I guess I ought to go. ... But it's awful hard to break away."

Technically the evening is not as satisfying. The fine lighting by Pat Collins and intricate sound design of Stephen LeGrand are somewhat undermined by the poor quality of the videotapes. The famous home video of the King beating and another showing the attempted robbery of a Korean convenience store and the subsequent shooting of a black teen-ager by the store's owner were grainy and nearly impossible to make out. Perhaps this was intended to raise the question of the validity of eyewitness accounts. But as no such point was made explicitly, it seems doubtful. Tragedies based on the testimony of such tapes deserve good technical delivery.

Dramatically, the show stumbles in the second act with a curious section in which Smith has imagined "a conversation that never happened ... created from fragments of interviews ... [with] people [who] have not, to date, been in a room together." Various community and political activists, including former Black Panther Party head Elaine Brown and U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley, gather to declaim on the events we've been considering so closely. The sudden reflective mood adds nothing of significance and stops the momentum dead; we are reminded of the lateness of the hour and how long we've been sitting in our seats.

Still, Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 is impossible to shake. The account of a juror in the federal trial, when a satisfactory verdict was finally reached, is stunning. This, followed by the anguish of a Korean store owner who must "swallow the bitterness," leaves us with an accurate sense of just how complicated the problems are.

The show also strikes me as surprisingly timely. At four years after the events it treats, and just months after the O.J. Simpson trial, it regards the issues at enough of a distance to create perspective even while the immediacy of those issues is never in doubt. As a citizen, I was involved and stimulated.

As a lover of theater I was transfixed. The effect of filtering so many personalities -- from celebrities to the lowest street-brawlers -- through one person is to create a marvelous democratic vision: Because we are seeing everything via a single brilliant instrument, the people themselves become equal. Smith's illuminating portraits flash before us, one after the other, like fireworks exploding in the night sky; for each miraculous instant, whether feeling compassion or contempt, we are utterly enthralled.

Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 runs through March 17 at Marines Memorial Theater in S.F.; call (510) 845-4700.

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