BWW Review: Words Fail, But Humanity May Prevail in TWILIGHT, LOS ANGELES at the REP
When it comes to controversial events of public importance, there never seem to be any real smoking guns. No evidence is ever so powerful or conclusive that it will compel a complete consensus as to what happened or what it meant. Playwright and actor Anna Deveare Smith establishes a strong case-in-point in her 1993-1994 show Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, now being resurrected lovingly by actor Danielle A. Drakes and director Paige Hernandez at Columbia's REP Stage. Twilight gathers and replays the recollections of many Angelenos surrounding the 1991 police beating of black motorist Rodney King, the acquittal of the police officers who beat him, and the ensuing uprising which left 63 dead and neighborhoods in ruins, including a well-publicized attack on Reginald Denny, a white truckdriver who blundered unawares into the heart of the unrest.
There was a videotape of the King beating. But the citizens of the African-American and Hispanic parts of LA viewed that tape quite differently from law enforcement or from the white citizens of Simi Valley who sat on the jury that criminally acquitted the officers. To the former, the beatdown was a routine exercise of racial superiority, designed to enforce the racist social structures that LA policing always enforced. To the latter, the police were complying with use of departmental use-of-force protocols when confronted with an arrest subject who had been fleeing and was at risk for being under the influence of PCP, a drug which would have predictably rendered him much harder to subdue.
The tragic lack of consensus around that tape was not just the product of different experiences among the populace, though it was that. On the evidence of the script, derived verbatim from hours of interviews by Smith, it was also the product of inadequate means of discourse and conflicting moral hierarchies.
Let's talk about the problems with discourse first. The speakers Smith and Drakes bring to life are not as articulate as we'd like, especially when they explain or argue about matters of the rights and wrongs of the 1992 events. Smith herself acknowledges this, in the General Production Note at the head of the acting edition: "Many times a character speaks in a counterintuitive way, in which words in and of themselves do not make sense." I'd argue that Smith's evidence points to a deeper problem that the articulation betrays rather than masking: the underlying thought processes don't make sense either. The characters often don't want to look at themselves or their own motives closely, and their talk is a method of avoidance.
Thus Sergeant Charles Duke, a use-of-force expert who defended the bone-breaking batons used on King, gives a great deal of detail about why one of the police was not executing the blows well, or why batons were resorted to rather than "upper body control holds" or why the choice of batons was the police department's way of getting back at irritating black community leaders and the politicians who had listened to them. One awaits and does not hear a word about the morality of police attacks on black bodies or that of the policing techniques which helped engender the community resentment that exploded. (Oddly, that task is mostly assigned to former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley, who recounts at second hand a brief, horrifying tale of the casual racism that informed so much of the policing style in LA of that time.)
Likewise Ted Briseno, one of the officers allegedly involved in the King beating, does not talk about the beating at all, or about the rights and the wrongs of it; his talk is entirely of how he is the missing link of intergenerational regard in his family, as his father, a policeman he admired, died when Briseno was young, and as his own kids no longer admire him. Not one word about the catastrophe Briseno was alleged to have helped trigger. (He may not have felt called upon for an accounting, as he was acquitted at two trials, though unless I missed something this seems not to be explicit in this production.)
Similarly, when one listens to the talk of Keith Watson, one of the rioters who beat up Reginald Denny, it is frustrating to hear him say, referring to the verdict:
That could've been me out there getting' my ass whooped!
And these four officers could a walked away for whoopin' my ass like that?
I wasn't raised to take ass whoopin's like that and turn the other cheek
Fine, but Keith Watson was not attacking policemen; what about the morality of getting back at the cops by "whoopin'" civilians? That issue is missing in action.
The uselessness of speech reaches its apogee in a rambling discourse by public intellectual Cornel West, who takes the relatable subject of "black sadness" and manages to make it so abstruse and abstract, so full of obscure references to Anton Chekhov, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Toni Morrison and a host of others, that it peters out like the Colorado River without touching us.
To one degree or another, most of the characters fail to use words properly to convey directly what is important. But as I have said, the underlying problem is larger. It is a mismatch of moral paradigms. The malaise of the neighborhoods that exploded was a national moral scandal that the police and their advocates failed to take adequate account of, a systemic assault on the sensibilities, rights and lives of people of color. Rodney King may have been a petty criminal, but "whoopin'" on him because of his fleeing arrest was nonetheless part of a larger pattern of oppression. Conversely, the rationale of the rioters and looters was that they were agents of karma, of cosmic payback, a payback which law and morality never allow private citizens to administer. Bookkeeper Katie Miller is evasive about whether or not she was a looter, though she comes close to acknowledging she had participated in looting in earlier 1965 riots. And she seems to think that Pep Boys, which was attacked, was attacked because "they too damn high" - presumably a reference to their pricing. And the attack on an I. Magnin store is pretty close to justified in her mind because it would upset a certain white newscaster she found insufferable.
With these mismatched paradigms, the possibility of rationally settling the underlying issues by a dialogue among the participants is hard to conceive. Yet clearly Smith has ambitions of taking steps in that direction with this show. It is not, I think, that she expects to correct anyone's point of view (in her Note on Casting, Smith disavows wanting any character to be "sent up"), nor does she expect anyone to adopt anyone else's paradigm. This play seems to be more about making people grasp, at a gut level, the personhood of all of the participants in this scene. The characters' inarticulacy and their ineptness with moral paradigms is, it seems, intended to be telling proof of their humanity. And the demand at the end is not for intellectual agreement; the final speech goes to Twilight Bey, a gang truce organizer, who says the key is not "just identifying with people like me, and understanding me and mine." Identification with people in other gangs and (in Smith's commentary) tribes is both more important than and precedes mere agreement.
In the end, a cautious hopefulness emerges: Cornel West's maundering notwithstanding, he does extol hope. There is the tale that ends the first act, that of Elvia Evers, Panamanian expectant mom whose encounter with the uprising ends in a kind of Ripley's Believe-It-Or-Not miracle that can only bring a smile. And of course Twilight's closing comments must be taken as a ground for hope, far beyond mere rationality.
As confirmation of the futility of mere rational argument, I think, Smith urges that productions use the videotapes of the beatings of both King and Denny (and also that of the killing of Latasha Harlins by a Korean shopkeeper, treatment of which is in the script but not in this production). Reviewing all three will drive home how inconclusive each is as evidence, how inadequate. We cannot rely on smoking guns, Smith seems to be telling us; we can only rely on our common humanity.
The trick in making recognition of that humanity possible is making the differences as well as the similarities palpable, which requires some serious acting. Smith is not doctrinaire about how many performers are required. She alone played all roles in the original production, and Drakes follows her in that, but that is a high-wire act. Convincingly conjuring up the (by my count) 24 characters in this rendering of the play - blacks, whites, Koreans, Hispanics, men and women - is not for the faint of heart. No one performer could make every embodiment perfect, and I don't claim Drakes has done the impossible, but she's awfully good. (She's pictured above as the white use-of-force expert.) Between her renderings and the explanatory slides and videos (by Sarah Tunderman), one could feel one was meeting a host of interesting and sometimes intriguing individuals.
Also bringing this challenging vision to fruition was Debra Kim Sivigny's set, a two-level wonder that Drakes wanders all over, dealing with the clutter of video screens, props and costumes, and after the uprising gets going, post-riot litter.
As may be inferred, the show is, overall, a profound experience. And it's one that particularly resonates in view of our area's recent trauma with the Freddie Gray riot. It is disheartening that we seem to remain stuck in the same sad place that the citizens of Los Angeles occupied 27 years ago. But perhaps the hopeful message Smith finally took away from that dark time fits us as well. And maybe that's what we take away from it.
Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, by Anna Deveare Smith, directed by Paige Hernandez, presented by REP Stage through March 17 at the Studio Theatre of the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center, Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia, MD 21044. Tickets $10-$40 at 443-518-1500 or www.repstage.org . Adult language, descriptions of violence.
Photo credit: Katie Simmons-Barth.