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Twilight and Racial Inequality in America Aaron Rovinsky

Cover for the PBS edition of Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 by Anna Deavere Smith

Abstract: This paper is an analysis of five interviews from the play Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 and how they interweave to build a complex understanding of not only the events surrounding the Los Angeles riots, but also of inequality in America as a whole. The analysis is both textual – with respect to the statements in each interview explicitly – and structural – pertinent to the order and positioning of the interviews relative to one another. While the play consists of interviews with residents of Los Angeles, this essay delves into how those interviews reflect the experiences of larger groups of Americans who are similar to the interviewees.

Police form a line to block a crowd from entering a building during the 1992 Los Angeles riots (Associated Press)

Question: How are the interviews in Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 compared and contrasted to construct a complex understanding of the Los Angeles riots, and how does that reflect racial inequality in America as a whole?

Actress Toya Turner acting in a six-woman-cast re-production of Twilight (Carin Silkaitis)
A destroyed building during the LA riots (Douglas C. Pizac)

Essay:

Anna Deavere Smith’s play Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 is a compilation of a variety of individual interviews with those who were affected by or had some tangential relation to the 1992 Los Angeles riots. The play is an attempt to build a multifaceted understanding of the causes, events, and aftermath of the riots through various, seemingly unrelated perspectives. The diversity of the interviewees grants nearly every viewer the opportunity to relate the material in the play to his or her own life. Furthermore, though Twilight is an exploration of the LA riots in particular, the lack of a specific, common thread throughout each of the interviews in the play allows the audience to generalize the play’s material to construct a broad image of race relations in America. This essay will be a study of five of the play’s interviews and the relationships and comparisons that can be drawn between them. The positioning of the interviews relative to one another are also key in understanding Smith’s study of the events surrounding the riots, as some interviews seem to have been paired in series as an intentional juxtaposition.

The first of these interviews is with Stanley K. Sheinbaum, former president of the Los Angeles Police Commision. Sheinbaum tells the story of when he walked into a gang meeting, despite resistance from his subordinate officers, explaining that it’s important to get to know the supposed enemy (11-15). The next interview, however, is with Michael Zinzun, a victim of police abuse, and the interview starkly contrasts with the material presented by Sheinbaum. Zinzun describes his experience in detail: he was hit in the head by an officer with a billy club, and subsequently was blinded permanently by a bright light from another officer’s flashlight (16-20). The following interview is with Jason Sanford, a white actor who discusses his understanding of the clear differences between how white and Black people are treated by the police. He explains that his interactions with police are typically relatively conversational, even when he’s been arrested, and that he knows that if he were Black those interactions would go very differently (21-22). The next interview of study is with Theresa Allison, the mother of a gang truce architect. Allison describes when her nephew was killed by police, and her account demonstrates the extent to which racism drives some police officers to abuse their power (32-40). The final interview is with Mrs. Young-Soon Han, a former liquor store owner, who provides an interesting perspective which is critical of the Black community and those who participated in the riots. She makes the argument that while she understands that Black people have struggled to and “fought for their rights [for] over two centuries,” she disapproves of the riots and the chaos they caused (244-249).

Anna Deavere Smith playing Elaine Young in Twilight (Adger W. Cowans, The Associated Press)

The interviewees in Twilight can each be categorized distinctly along the lines of occupation and experience. Given the aforementioned generality of the interviews, each interview can be seen as a specific example of the experiences of those who can be categorized in the same way as the interviewee. For example, store owners like Mrs. Han likely would feel the same discontent for the perpetrators of the LA riots, and therefore her interview is a reflection of the probable sentiment of other American store owners. This attribute makes Twilight, a play directly pertinent to Los Angeles, somewhat of a broad case study of inequality in America. Essentially, while the play examines specific, detailed stories and opinions of Los Angeles residents, those stories act as frames of reference for the audience to better understand racial inequality in America as a whole.

In the first interview, Sheinbaum says that after he went to a gang meeting and spoke to members of the gang, his subordinate police officers said to him, “‘You went in and talked to our enemy,’” and Sheinbaum comments that “Gangs are [the officers’] enemy” (14). His willingness to speak to members of a gang despite opposition from other officers shows the audience that there are police who are willing to recognize and fight against their implicit biases. On the other hand, the fact that he was criticized for trying to understand the “enemy” illustrates that many police officers in America have a serious issue with communication and would rather assume someone is dangerous than try to have a dialogue with them. The next interview, with Michael Zinzun, is a detailed example of what police brutality in the US looks like. Zinzun was “hit… with a billy club… in the side of the head” and had his “optic nerve to the brain [exploded]” by a police flashlight (17-19). His experience is just one of the many stories of police brutality and abuse of power in America, and as such it is clear why Zinzun became a representative for the Coalition Against Police Abuse (16). In the following interview, Jason Sanford discusses his treatment by police relative to how he expects they would treat him if he was not white. Sanford has been arrested on more than one occasion and has multiple warrants, and yet police would only “make comments about God, you like Mr., uh, all-American white boy” and say things like “Why do you have so many warrants?” or “Shouldn’t you be takin’ care of this?” (22). He concludes with a direct comment on his skin color, stating “I’m sure I’m seen by the police totally different than a black man,” demonstrating his awareness of his privilege as a white man. These first three interviews seem to have been placed in series with intention. The juxtaposition of the interviews shows that while the issue of police brutality, as well as race relations in America as a whole, is very real and serious, it is much more complicated than white officers vs. Black Americans. There are those who recognize their privileges and are willing to work to break down their biases, but others are less than willing to do so and harshly abuse their power.

A group of protestors subdued by the police during the 1992 LA riots (Steve Dykes, Getty Images)

In the interview with Theresa Allison, founder of Mothers Reclaiming Our Children, Allison paints a picture of an extremely corrupt justice system, where police go out of their way to hurt and murder Black people. She recounts when her nephew Tiny was shot by the police and says “They shot forty-three times” to make the shooting look like a gang shootout. She says the police “were dressed like gang members” and planned to list the event as a “drive-by shooting” (33). The final interview with Mrs. Young-Soon Han presents a very different sentiment from the previous four. Han holds the opinion that “Many Afro-Americans… who never worked… they get at least minimum amount… of money… to survive… We don’t get any!” (246). She also points out the hypocrisy in idolizing Martin Luther King while perpetrating violent riots which harmed store owners like herself. At the end of the interview, Han says, “I wish I could live together with… Blacks, but after the riots there were too much differences [sic]” (249). Regardless of whether or not Mrs. Han’s beliefs and judgments are correct, her interview serves as a representation of the attitudes of the sizeable group of Americans who hold some contempt toward the Black community.

Through Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, Anna Deavere Smith does a phenomenal job of examining the complexities of racism and abuse of police power as they relate to the 1992 Los Angeles riots. The issues described in the interviews she transcribes, however, are not unique to LA, but rather are applicable and relevant throughout the nation. The fact that each interviewee is distinct from the rest in categorizable ways, such as occupation and life experience, encourages the audience to view each interview as a case study of the general sentiments of individuals within those categories. Twilight not only constructs an important understanding the LA riots, but also uniquely and powerfully illustrates the roles racism and police brutality play in the larger scope of America.

Anna Deavere Smith in multiple scenes of Twilight (Griot Magazine)

Bibliography:

Smith, Anna Deavere. Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. Anchor, 1994.

Reflection: