The story of Los Angeles in 1992 can not be simply explained by one narrative. Beneath this surface explanation is “a sea of associated causes”, making the story complex. The purpose of the play Twilight was not to find causes, but rather to explore the shade of the loss of the city.
In 1992, there was a huge riot in Los Angeles - a response to acquitted LAPD officers who beaten Rodney King, a black man. "Twilight: Los Angeles 1992" is a documentary theater that the playwright Anna Devere Smith acts out 25 individuals who participated in the interview regarding the 1992 riot in Los Angeles. This essay analyses the effect of documentary theater, the structural racism portrayed in the play, and the title 'Twilight' in reimagining America. By utilizing documentary theater, Anna Deavere Smith constructs multiple viewpoints on a single event, allowing the audience to hear the candid thoughts of diverse citizens in the process, allowing them to reimagine America by reliving the historical moment. These viewpoints commonly presents the structural support to racism given by law, congress, and mass media, leading the audience to think about the root couse of racism. By containing various voices from different people, the play effectively portrays ‘twilight’ - the time of transition - and claim that we need to acknowledge the mingled reality of black and white, just like the mix of light and darkness in the twilight, and the understanding about this status quo is crucial. With these devices, Anna Deavere Smith contends that we have to acknowledge our mingled reality to reimagine America, an America without racism.
How can we reimagine America from the play Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992?
The play was a particular challenge due to the number and the diversity of the voices she gathered through interviews. Smith stated, “My predominant concern about the creation of Twilight was that my own history, which a history of race as a black and white struggle, would make the work narrower than it should be .” Because of this concern, Smith sought out people who had very developed careers and identities outside the theater profession. During acting each character as a form of “documentary theater,” she mainly considered how the interview text works as a physical, audible, and performable vehicle .
Documentary theater is fact-based performance which is composed using archival materials such as trial transcripts, official or government documents, iconic visual images or video footage, newspaper reporting, historical writing, and recorded interviews. Documentary performances often emerge in response to social or political crises; documentary playwrights offer their audiences a theatrical presentation of real events to inspire critical questions about history, memory and justice as well as provoke social action to change the world outside the theater walls . Using this form of theater, Anna Deavere Smith constructs multiple viewpoints on a single event, the Rodney King riot. This is important because not a single voice can speak for the entire city in 1992—race dialogue needs more complex language to interpret the situation from various perspectives. In return, the audience gets to see different points of view on the riots, but also the desire for people of different races and classes to be more connected and not feel pulled away from one another . They can hear the candid and raw thoughts of diverse citizens in the process, reliving a historical event and recapturing the atmosphere of the riot.
[Picture: Anna Deavere Smith in the play Twilight, Los Angeles 1992, image from Chicago Critic]
In the play, structural inequality and racial discrimination are commonly seen from the individual character’s portrayals. Jason Stanford, an affluent white, explains “white privilege”: “I’m sure I’m seen by the police totally different than a black man.” Theresa Allison, Founder of Mothers Reclaiming Our Children, thinks the problem “...is the color, cause we’re Black.”
[Picture: Scene of Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, image from Reader]
These cases of prevalent racism are strongly backed by various structural support. Senator Bill Bradley shares his story about how the laws that are supposed to protect them are misapplied and become a weapon more often. When Bradley’s friend did nothing wrong, his friend was handcuffed and interrogated with guns drawn because he presumably has kidnapped a white woman. By just being “in a wrong neighborhood and black,” he was treated brutally by the police. This example shows the inequality in law that prompts structural racism. Furthermore, the structural support for racism is also given by congress. Congresswomen Waters states, “The fact of the matter is whether you like it or not, riot is the voice of the unheard.” Frequently, congress neglected the voices of minorities and people of color. In her interview, she reveals that “institutionalized racism” is abundant across the U.S., not just Los Angeles. Lastly, the structural support for racism is given by mass media. Angela King, aunt of Rodney King himself testifies how there is a huge disparity between the portrayal of the media and the reality. Rodney King was treated as “nobody,” while he should be treated like an equal individual.
With Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, Smith is trying to convey the message that we are all more similar than we are different . In fact, the theme of common awakening flows from the start to the end of the play. The title “twilight” adequately describes this. Mentioned above, the play shows the intertwined reality where the solution to racial discrimination seems obscure, ambiguous, and hard to achieve, just as the state of twilight. However, Anna Devere Smith does not just stop here - she also focuses on the transition to a better future. Twilight or sunset is a transitional time where we can reflect on ourselves; it is the period where light is mingled with darkness. From the play, Smith highlights that the acknowledgment of this mixed reality is crucial. Before the dawn of a new era beyond racism, we first have to realize where we stand.
[Picture: Sky at Twilight, Google Image]