Anna Deavere Smith’s one-woman verbatim play Twilight, Los Angeles, 1992 partially acts as a time capsule that unearths the tumultuous race relations and structural injustices that led to the beating of Rodney King, the shooting of Latasha Harlins, and the controversial verdicts from both cases during the LA riots of Spring 1992. Smith researched and performed the original 1994 production, weaving together 40-odd verbatim monologues taken from over 300 interviews. In Ola Ince’s paired-down production for Notting Hill’s Gate Theatre, Nina Bowers performs the multi-person narrative with verve and agility. Its impact is breathtaking, and it illustrates the complexity, the knottiness, the sheer inequality, the resilience, and the anger of the time.
As an insight into LA in the early nineties, it’s a remarkably diverse sample of voices and opinions, including some heavyweights like Congresswoman Maxine Waters (imitated uncannily by Bowers) and Reginald Denny, the truck driver beaten to within an inch of his life by the “LA Four.” It takes into account not just tensions between black Americans and white Americans, but also the voices of the Korean-American community, whose neighbourhood was abandoned by law enforcement during the riots. Smith collates and compiles these snippets of intimacy and honesty and presses them together with a force that builds an undeniable potency.
It’s all executed through a high-octane performance by Bowers, paired with smart and stimulating design from Jacob Hughes, lights by Anna Watson, and sound by Max Perryment. The atmosphere is distilled, and allows Bowers to be energetic and arresting, even if she is occasionally unclear in her characterisation.
One has to wonder the dramaturgical impact of having a single actor play so many roles. Importantly, it allows the audience to come to terms with contradiction as part of the human condition, demonstrating that one voice can hold two conflicting opinions. It also exemplifies the similarities between people who seem so irreconcilably different. But it also brings up questions about performing identities, specifically marginalised or minority ones, who have in the past been stereotyped and reduced through performance.
Ince manages this problem by allowing the audience, to some extent, to be performers within the space. We are not passive observers of a time capsule on display: we are also voices in the room. In a scene where Bowers magnificently morphs into jury members in the second Rodney King trial, one jury member Maria admits that it was only after a group therapy session that they were able to see the evidence clearly. They needed a space to admit their preconceptions, guilt, and complicity, where they could acknowledge and own their feelings before being able to properly enact justice.
Ince attempts to create that sort of space for us in the theatre. Name-tags are given out and audiences are encouraged to provide discussion topics to incite conversation between them. Bowers speaks to the audience before, and charmingly cuts short her conversation, gesturing that she needs to, you know, start the show. The interval involves a tea and coffee trolley and cups with quotes on – further talking points (mine was Audre Lorde: “Your Silence Will Not Protect You”). A quick poll is done at the beginning of the show with raised hands: do you believe rioting to be a valid form of protest? Have you ever judged someone based on their race?
Twilight, Los Angeles, 1992 is not just a time capsule then, because it’s happening in the present moment. A ticking clock counts down the minutes during the interval. We are in the now. Hearing these testimonies together is, in and of itself, a form of bearing witness, not to the past, but to the communal present. In this room we reconcile with the past, and interrogate the present.
Because it is a present that needs interrogating. That’s evidenced by the opening night aptly taking place on MLK Day amid (even more) racist comments from a President who prefers to play golf than tackle inequality, and by the current statistics on racial injustice in the US and the UK that are displayed on screens after the show. Ince makes it clear that she wants us to think about how race and power continue to intertwine, how protests are defined and who gets to define them, how justice is served and to whom.
But importantly, she wants us to think about this together, as an assemblage of voices, listening to each other and to ourselves, for the sake of justice and equality.
Twilight, Los Angeles, 1992 is at the Gate Theatre until February 10th. For more details, click here.