Thursday, February 01, 2018

From the Archives: How Can 'Twilight' Be So Bright? (1997)

This review of Anna Deavere Smith's Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, appeared in The Metro Herald in February 1997:

How Can "Twilight" Be So Bright?
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

Roget's Thesaurus offers the following words as synonyms for "brilliant": luminous, luminiferous, lucid, lucent, light, lit, well-lit, floodlit, flooded with light, bright, gay, shining, nitid, fulgent, resplendent, splendent, splendid, flamboyant, vivid, neon, colorful, radiant, effulgent, refulgent, dazzling, blinding, glaring, incandescent, flaring, flaming, aflame, aglow, afire, ablaze, fiery, glowing, blushing, auroral, rutilant, luminescent, fluorescent, phosphorescent, noctilucent, soft, lambent, playing, beaming, glittery, flashing, glinting, scintillant, scintillating, sparkling, lustrous, chatoyant, shimmering, shiny, sheeny, glossy, polished, reflecting, catoptric.

Anna Deavere Smith Twilight Los Angeles 1992It is hard to find a word in this list that does not describe Anna Deavere Smith's remarkable performance in her current one-woman show at Ford's Theatre, Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992.

Based upon more than 175 interviews she conducted with participants and observers of the Los Angeles riots of 1992 (those which followed the acquittals of the LAPD officers accused of beating Rodney King), Twilight features more than 200 "characters" who are, in fact, real people. Smith portrays them all, male and female, black and white, immigrant and native, young and old. Her performance ranges from breathtaking to poignant to comic. In every case, Smith is brilliant. She never wavers, never lags, never fails to hit her mark.

Anna Deavere Smith is part anthropologist, part monologist. She has written this play but is no "rugged individualist" -- indeed, she called in four dramaturgs to help her write the piece and relies on the excellent direction of Sharon Ott. She works to be a bridge between people of different backgrounds, different races, different points of view. (Even as she was preparing to mount this production at Ford's Theatre in Washington last week, Smith made a special trip to New York to moderate a debate between Pulitzer-prize winning playwright August Wilson and theatre critic Robert Brustein on the topic of their long-simmering dispute about the future of "black theatre" in America.)

Smith says that the speeches in this play -- technically, there is no "dialogue," because there is only one "speaker" (Anna Deavere Smith) but in fact and in effect, the evening was one continuous dialogue -- are verbatim reproductions of statements made by the people she interviewed in the aftermath of the riots. What she has recreated is, in many cases, "found poetry." She plumbs the actual statements of real people and finds humor, rage, sorrow, arrogance, and incompetence. In short, she explores all the emotions and characteristics of real people in real situations.

At times, Smith had the audience nearly rolling in the aisles with laughter. The comedy was a soft comedy, however, not raucous or slapstick. The humor derived from the characters' apparent incapacity to understand that what they said was funny. An example: Elaine Young, "real estate agent to the stars," who talks about "huddling" at the Beverly Hills Hotel during the riots "because I've eaten lunch there every day for the past 36 years."

At other times, one could hear a pin drop -- the audience literally stopped breathing to better listen to the words from the stage. An example: Elvira Evers, a Panamanian immigrant who was shot during the early stages of the riot, but not until near the end of her monologue does it come out that she was pregnant and that the bullet was stopped by the baby in her womb. (A real tear-jerker, this, particularly when the audience learns that both mother and child survived, healthy.)

An interesting question: How is it that Anna Deavere Smith can recreate these actual personalities on stage without the risk of falling afoul of libel or slander suits? After all, some of these people are not very sympathetic. This problem didn't occur to me until the character of Elaine Young came on stage -- her name was familiar because she has been the real estate agent trying to sell the home of an acquaintance of mine. Should Ms. Young or any of the others disapprove of Smith's characterization of them, wouldn't they be inclined -- in these litigious times -- to sue the pants off the playwright?

Ford's Theatre Washington DC That aside, Anna Deavere Smith proves once again that theatre requires little more than a performing space, some light, and an actor. She is able to create some 30 characters merely by putting on a scarf or a tie or a jacket, sitting in different chairs, lighting a cigarette or cigarillo, and adopting a new voice. One soon forgets that this is a "one-woman show." This is a multifaceted, multiple-personality show that happens to be performed by one actress.

It's a real shame that Ford's Theatre has booked Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 for only 16 performances. This theatre is an excellent venue for this play. It is small enough that no electronic amplification is necessary for the audience to hear and understand the performer. This maintains a sense of intimacy and engagement that enhances the experience. Perhaps we will see a return tour someday soon.

Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, continues through February 14, 1997, at Ford's Theatre, 511 Tenth Street, N.W., in Washington. Performances are Tuesday through Saturday evenings at 7:30 p.m., Thursday matinees at 1:00 p.m., and Sunday matinees at 3:00 p.m. Tickets are available through ProTix at 703-218-6500 or at the Ford's Theatre Box Office.

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