Nov 3, 2021

Wayback Wednesday: A Look Back at 'Twilight'

It's hardly an exaggeration to say that
Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 was a formative work for meindeed, one of a series of groundbreaking works that Gordon Davidson's Mark Taper Forum staged in its prime, and which I was lucky to be on hand for (this roster also included Angels in AmericaThe Kentucky Cycle, and various works by Culture Clash, among others). As I am currently writing a piece about a new Twilight revival at the Signature Theatre in New York City, it's an apt time to look back on my review of the original production.

Catcher in the Riots

Anna Deavere Smith's illuminating 'Twilight'

Los Angeles Downtown News, June 21, 1993

by Rob Kendt

Arbritators and mediators, in labor terms, are very different things. An arbritrator makes legally binding decisions in an impasse; a mediator gets people to talk in hopes of compromise but without the promise, or the threat, of a final solution.

In Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, playing at the Mark Taper Forum through July 18, Anna Deavere Smith proves herself an accomplished mediator—and, as with many labor disputes, one who’s been called in from out of town. At the Taper’s commission, this self-styled docudramatist/performance artist from San Francisco has spent the last year talking to srores of Angelenos about the riots, the police, Rodney King and their city’s fragile order. In Twilight, the resulting two-hour theater piece, Smith renders a couple dozen of these interviews verbatim—the theatrical equivalent of a live feed.

The verdict? First, not guiity on one count: the charge, levelled by a number of local artists last year, that Smith is a cultural interloper, an outsider with no business limning “our town”—at least not before L.A.-based performers had a chance.

The grumblers might have grounds if her show had turned out a fiasco. It did not; in fact, it is much better than could be expected. For in presenting the unique, startling compendium of voices, mannerisms, and details that make up Twilight, Smith gives us an L.A. portrait as loving as it is challenging.

And the power of its questing intelligence may have as much to do with the rigidly interlocking objectivity of her approach as with her actual physical objectivity, her looking in on a city she had known only passingly at best.

Prickly Mood

There is one woman on the stage, but she stands on the shoulders not just of her many interview subjects (see sidebar), but of the Taper's supportive staff, crew, director Emily Mann, and a rainbow coalition of dramaturgs—Elizabeth Alexander, Oskar Eustis, Dorinne Kondo and Hector Tobar. Sound like too many cooks?

Remarkably, it's not. Smith enacts characters as wide-ranging as ex-gang members, Korean shop owners, a Westside talent agent and a pair of jurors (one from the Simi Valley trial and one from the recent federal trial), with little more than a table, some chairs, a cabinet, a few coats and hats, some assorted small props. There is also the effective, if ascetic, lighting design by Allen Lee Hughes, and Lucia Hwong's prickly transitional music cues, used as throat-clearing mood breaks by sound designer Jon Gottleib.

And, early on, Smith leaves the stage to let 15 TV screens play a portentous riot montage by Jon Stolzberg, with Hwong's overstated music wilting the lily. This hectoring video cut-up turns out to be the evening's sole misstep.

Fugue Buzz

The rest showcases Smith's uncanny knack for suggestive impersonation, a matter of cadence, gesture, and attitude calibrated to a scintilla. And as the chorus of disparate voices grows, a kind of astringent, non-tonal harmony emerges.

In the most mundanely laudable sense, Smith has created a dialogue among people who may never speak or even meet, including the audience. But Twilight's form and impact more resembles music than theater: It's a fugue of discrete experiences, seen from different angles, all gathered and reproduced with such clarity that we come out practically humming its buzz; we're full of stories told by people we feel we know better.

Could a local artist have done the same? Hard to say. Does Taper director Gordon Davidson spend too much time hunting in New York (where he saw Smith's Crown Heights piece, Fires in the Mirror, last year, and quickly snapped her up for Twilight)? Perhaps.

But this doesn't take away from Smith's achievement. Twilight makes a rare and stunning case not so much for "respecting diversity" as for allowing social complexity to retain its complexity, for preserving its surreal, horrible humor and poetry. This is the stuff of art, and Angelenos should welcome it as a gift of the Magior at least, as the work of a skilled mediator. Federal arbitration, as we've seen, is a last resort.

Twilight will play through July 18 at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Av. "Pay What You Can" performances are offered July 3-4. Call (213) 972-0700.

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