Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 review
Time Out says
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This landmark docu-theatre show about the LA riots has stood the test of time
In the aftermath of the 1992 riots in LA – prompted by the acquittal of the four white police officers who beat Rodney King – actor and playwright Anna Deavere Smith interviewed over 300 city residents. Their testimonies were whittled down to form ‘Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992’, one of the first examples of verbatim theatre. Smith, now best known for playing Nancy McNally in ‘The West Wing’, performed every part.
British director Ola Ince has further condensed the material for this revival, but if the genre is today familiar, the content often startles. Smith must have had an astonishing facility for putting interviewees at ease, for there’s surprising candour. And ‘Twilight’ doesn’t just feel like a period piece. From police brutality and institutional racism to the fear of ‘the other’ and the failures of urban multiculturalism, many themes that bubble up here have hardly gone off the boil.
The voices often come from marginalised communities or victims of violence or injustice, but there are also testimonies that strike from unexpected directions: the white police officer discussing the use of batons versus chokeholds, for instance, or the African-American activist condemning Korean shopkeepers for not integrating, or a juror devastated at receiving a warm invitation from the Ku Klux Klan after the King trial. It’s cacophonous, but you’re also left with a powerful sense that Smith actually listened to what people had to say, rather than trying to fit accounts into some streamlined or anticipated narrative. It makes for fascinating listening.
‘Twilight’ is staged like a town meeting – we even have a shuffling tea break halfway through – although Jacob Hughes’s design has every chair and the floors painted a bright Pepto-Bismol pink, for reasons I couldn’t quite twig. At other points, flashing neon strip lights, smoke and bursts of ‘Straight Outta Compton’ help evoke the riots themselves.
Ince mimics the original staging in having one actress play every part, impersonating multiple ethnicities. It’s a very big ask, and young actress Nina Bowers is impressive as she scampers around the audience, or holds us with her stillness. A strangely beatific account of a pregnant woman caught in crossfire leaves you tingling; a lively young woman snappily recreating her experience on a bigoted yet angst-ridden jury becomes a comic treat. But there’s a huge number of characters to differentiate between, and – especially early on, and especially with men over a certain age – Bowers’s portrayals can fall into a similar booming, over-inflated style. It would require insane virtuosity to nail every character; why not share the burden?