April 20, 2001

The Shades of Loss

For Anna Deavere Smith, theater is more than passive entertainment—it's a call to action. With television's ability to reach far more people than any theater can hold. Stage on Screen: Twilight: Los Angeles has the potential to effect real change for its nationwide audience. The following is adapted from an essay by Smith on the making of her stage piece. Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, which is the basis for the film.

In May 1992 I was commissioned by the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles to create a one-woman performance piece about the civil disturbances in that city the month before. Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 was the product of my search for the character of Los Angeles in the wake of the initial Rodney King verdict — which, depending on your point of view, would be variously referred to as a "riot," an "uprising," and/or a "rebellion."

Rodney King's aunt, Angela King is one of the many characters Anna Deavere Smith portrays in "Twilight".

The story of how Los Angeles can to experience what some call the worst riots in United States history is by now familiar. The police officers who beat Rodney King were tried in Simi Valley, miles away from the social, economic, and racial problems in Los Angeles. More important, they were miles from the epicenter of the riots, South-Central L.A., and what may would call a war between residents and police officers.

Although I did not attend the original trial in Simi Valley, I did attend the subsequent federal civil rights. There I was able to imagine how a jury could become convinced that although the beating seemed brutal, it was, according to the defense, within the guidelines of the LAPD use-of-force policy. Moreover, I observed that some people are affected by the "aura" of the police, who in court appeared polite, well groomed, and ready to "protect and serve." This view of the police differs radically from the image conveyed to meet by one community activist, whose office walls were covered with photos of bloodied and maimed victims of police brutality.

Visiting the quiet, predominantly white suburb of Simi Valley, I began to perceive how profoundly different our experiences of law enforcement can be. For the jurors in the initial trial, Rodney King had been speeding and appeared to be a threat; the police officers reportedly concluded that King was on the drug PCP, impervious to pain, and therefore did not respond to the beating. On the other hand, when I interviewed Rodney King's aunt, she burst into tears as she recounted seeing the beating on television and "hearing him holler" the first time she saw the tape. One juror told me that others on the jury had difficulty hearing what King's aunt had heard on the videotape. But during deliberations, when they focused on the audio rather than the video image, their perspective changed. The physical image of Rodney King had to be taken away for them to agree that he was in pain and responding to the beating.

The video of the Rodney King beating, which seemed to "tell all," apparently did not tell enough. The prosecution, as their lead attorney told me, lost "the slam-dunk case of the century." The city of Los Angeles lost much more. Twilight is an attempt to explore the shades of that loss.

I have been particularly interested in how the events in Los Angeles give us an opportunity to take stock of how the race canvas in America is changing. Even since the 1992 riots, our attitudes about race have shifted. As the character Twilight indicates to us, we are in "limbo" that time between day and night. Nonetheless, part of perceiving the light, I think, is seeing race as more than a black and white picture.

Where do theater and film fit into this? Using the power of entertainment, spectacle, and dialogue, theater and film can participate in civic discourse and even influence national attitudes. As a time when our national conversation about race has become, to some extent, merely fragments of monologues, Twilight seeks to create a conversation from these fragments. It seeks to be a part of that conversation.

Twilight is a document of what I, as an actress, heard in Los Angeles. In creating a "social drama," I am not proposing a specific solution to social problems. I turn that over to activists, scholars, legislators, and most importantly, to you, the audience. As an actress, I am exploring the process of becoming something that I am not: the process of walking in someone else's shoes. Laws and legislation can create a context in which we can work towards better relations with one another. Yet they are limited in terms of their ability to teach us how to move from an individual position to a larger community.

We need to reach for the core of our humanity with all its glory and all its challenges. I am looking to illuminate something about our humanness. The solutions lie not in my monologues but in the collaborative humanness of the audience, who walk out of the theater with a potential to make change.

You anticipate me before the curtain goes up, I anticipate you as the curtain goes down. I await your dialogue, your dramatic action. Twilight has been created specifically to encourage dialogue across lines of power and race. More importantly, it has been created to encourage you to act and to move us further along on our American journey to get to "we" the people. Here's a place to start. Talk about this film to someone of another race and from a social class other than yours.

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