Reimagining American Twilight Yoonseok Yang, Theater 25AC

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.

Poster of twilight: los angeles, 1992

How can we reimagine America from the play Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992?

The riots over five days in the spring of 1992 left more than 50 people dead, and more than 2,000 injured. The rioting destroyed or damaged over 1,000 buildings in the Los Angeles area. The estimated cost of the damages was over $1 billion. More than 9,800 California National Guard troops were dispatched to restore order. Nearly 12,000 people were arrested, though not all the arrests were directly related to the rioting. - CNN
From the Twilight: Los Angeles 1992, 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. [Image: Reader]


“The soft glowing light from the sky when the sun is below the horizon, caused by the refraction and scattering of the sun’s rays from the atmosphere.”

“A period or state of obscurity, ambiguity, or gradual decline [1].” - Definition of 'Twilight,' Oxford Dictionary

In 1991, four white police officers brutally beat Rodney King, a black man, and were found not guilty. The play ‘Twilight: Los Angeles 1992’ documents the experiences of 25 individuals who directly and indirectly experienced the outrage, chaos, and the riot that followed Rodney King verdict. With the use of documentary theater, the exhibition of structural racism, and the title ‘twilight,’ Anna Deavere Smith leads the reader to reimagine America - that we have to acknowledge this mingled reality and move on for the better world.

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 [2].” 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 [2].

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 [3]. 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 [4]. 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]

Video of Anna Deavere Smith acting various characters in Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992.

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.

Characters acting during the play Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. During acting each character as a form of “documentary theater,” Smith mainly considered how the interview text works as a physical, audible, and performable vehicle [2]. Image from Reader.

However, the play doesn't only show the dark side. It shed light on the possibility and hope of an awakening, or collective consciousness - which is directly related to the reason why Anna Devere Smith named this play as 'Twilight.' Smith makes a salient choice to call her play 'Twilight,' a word that incorporates countless dialogues, the conflict, and the awakening present in the play. One of the things that can be found in the interviews of the characters is the presence of 'awakened consciousness.' Reginald Denny confesses he "didn't usually pay too much attention to what was going on" before the riot. Elvira Evers asks that we should "open our eyes, watch what is going on." Allen "Big Al" Cooper asks the audience to look back on the past "delusions." Twilight Bay testifies he suddenly feels he is "up twenty-four hours" a day. Theses are all testimonies of awakening - a sustained consciousness.

With Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, Smith is trying to convey the message that we are all more similar than we are different [4]. 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]

In Twilight: Los Angeles 1992, Korean American Young-Soon Han says, "The fire is still there [...] It's still dere. It canuh burst out anytime." Various interviewees with different races in the form of documentary theater highlight the racial disunity, expressing that their ideals of American assimilation were not a reality, even in 1992. As Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun said, "To get beyond racism we must first take account of race." The starting point for the next generation of racial justice should be first recognizing the implicit inequality among races. Though there is no inequality present in the law, there are still inherited and social inequalities present in our lives. For example, the average white family is richer than the average black family affected by their skin color. We should be uncomfortable with the present racial arrangement and think about what we can do to build a truly equal society. Discourse, the framework of discussion, or the understanding to make meaningful sense out of what we see, is what makes everything meaningful [5]. By discourse, we approach the true meaning of America, and in that process, we understand the concept in a deeper sense. With the use of documentary theater, the exhibition of structural racism, and the title' twilight,' Anna Deavere Smith stirs the reader to reimagine America through discourse - that we have to acknowledge this mixed reality and move on forward, for the future without racism.


Primary Source: Smith, Anna Deavere, Twilight: Los Angeles 1992 (play)

Secondary Source

  1. Oxford Advanced American Dictionary
  2. Smith, Anna Deavere. "Twilight, Los Angeles, 1992," First Anchor Books Edition: New York.
  3. Odendahl-James, Jules, "A Brief History of American Documentary Theatre," MikeWileyProductions
  4. Rowe, Brian, “Why Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 Remains an Important Play,” Medium
  5. Hall, Stuart, "Representation & the Media," Media Education Foundation


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