I saw Anna Deavere Smith’s one-woman performance “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992” on a cool November evening at McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey—more than three thousand miles and worlds away from the site of the first multiracial urban uprising in U.S. history. McCarter was home to the East Coast premiere of Smith’s performance, which had played to near-universal critical acclaim at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, and which was directed by McCarter’s Artistic Director, Emily Mann. Though the people in the theater that evening had each paid twenty-five dollars to see “Twilight,” I suspect that many of them had long forgotten (if they had ever acknowledged) the social and economic despair that gave rise to what urban theorist Mike Davis has called “the most violent American civil disturbance since the Irish poor burned Manhattan in 1863.” Indeed, by last November, the trial of the L.A. Four for the near-fatal beating of truck driver Reginald Denny—played in many press accounts as a racial counterbalance to the near-fatal beating of Rodney King—had taken center stage in the white public imagination.
When Smith’s performance had ended and the audience had offered its respectful, though not impassioned, applause, a friend of mine overheard a white woman sitting in the row behind us. Turning to her companion, she said in a polite If-you-can’t-say-anything-good-don’t-say-anything-at-all tone of voice, “Well, I wouldn’t exactly call it entertaining, but...” The woman never completed the sentence, never said what she would have called “Twilight.” Nor did she explain to her companion what she meant by “entertaining,” though clearly the term carried political, as well as aesthetic, value. Her gloss on “Twilight” also contained an unintended irony: Entertainment, or the production of glossy self-representations, is, after all, the dominant business of Los Angeles. In one sense, I could understand how the woman’s expectations could have felt somewhat let down if by “entertaining” she also meant diversionary; though “Twilight” is at times highly amusing, its effect is to memorialize the voices of L.A. In another sense, “entertainment” is one of the many challenges posed by “Twilight,” a work which seeks to generate theatrical compassion through Smith’s hallmark technique of literal impersonation.
The mood on Princeton University’s campus was unusually tense the morning after the verdicts were announced in the first trial of police officers Koon, Powell, Wind and Briseno. After a dreary night spent watching CNN’s live aerial television footage of fires that burned through a twenty-five-block area of central L.A., a group of Princeton’s African American and Latino students—joined by some Asian Americans and whites—staged a midday rally in front of Firestone Library (named after the rubber magnate). The students spoke of their rage at the verdicts and at the beating, their sorrow at the loss of life and the damage to neighborhoods, and of their alienation from some of their white friends, many of whom viewed the trial in Simi Valley as an anomalous miscarriage of justice. An Asian-American student implored the assembly to work together to combat racism and discrimination on campus. Some students voiced concern about friends and relatives living in Los Angeles; others spoke of their apprehension about family sixty miles away in New York, where the possibility of rioting still loomed large.
Ironically, April 29, 1992 was also the date set for the New York premiere of Smith’s “Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities,” her award-winning one-woman show about the conflict between Hasidic Jews and African- and Caribbean-Americans spurred by the death of a seven-year-old black...