What does it feel like to be caught in the tumult of an “uprising”? A “rebellion”? An “insurrection”? A “riot”?
Words matter. The weight of them. Their spin. Their arrangement. What do they signal to a listener? What do they say about the speaker? What do they say about power?
Midmorning, early February, gathered in a chilly black-box theater at the Watts Labor Community Action Committee (WLCAC) complex, a keenly alert theater ensemble considers the impact and consequence of words, of questions that open up new questions.
Nine people sit at a group of tables that form a large, empty rectangle. Resting on the tables’ blue vinyl surfaces are cups of pens and highlighters, rows of water bottles, and thick loose-leaf binders—each open to page 129 of the working script of Anna Deavere Smith’s Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. Among those participating in this morning’s session: five actors, a director, an assistant director, a stage manager, and a dramaturg.
“I was in a riot after Dr. King was assassinated,” director Gregg T. Daniel tells the group, painting a picture, in a grained, modulated baritone.
“I still remember that first spark. That first chair that went out of the window. It’s a shocking image. It’s nothing that you’re familiar with. There’s a kind of…”—he pauses, searching for precision—“edginess. There was this heightened sense of excitement.”
Los Angeles, 1992, had its own specific properties, a brittle tenseness. Daniel continues, “Remember this was a moment when the powerless had power, and those who had the power felt powerless. It’s a group of people making decisions in the moment, who have to come together. I want you inside of it. This happened to you.”
He glances down at his open script. “Now we’re going to be reading the rest of the play for texture and tone.” Gesturing to the production stage manager, seated across the open chasm separating the tables, he asks, “Shawna, do we know when Anna’s due to arrive?”
Shawna Voragen taps a few keys on her laptop and replies, “Anna should be here shortly. Then she’ll take a PCR test, but she’ll be in the building by then.”
“OK, let’s get started and see how far we get.”
It’s amply clear, however, that Smith is present. Already. The rehearsal space has made room for her: these are the voices and words she meticulously collected and embodied, on stage here in Los Angeles 30 years ago.
They lean into the scene, “A Dinner Party That Never Happened,” in which Smith has cleverly collaged together voices, verbatim, of a cross-section of people she had interviewed about the city’s 1992 civil upheaval—not just the flash point itself but the events leading up to, and in the tense weeks and months following, what would go on to be recorded as among the worst civil unrest in U.S. history.
As Daniel’s inquiry suggests, many did feel the bottom slip out, the world turn upside down. The date April 29, 1992, is a potent sense memory. Five days of rioting followed the acquittal of four LAPD officers who savagely beat a Black motorist, Rodney G. King, beaten in a neighborhood off the 210 freeway in March of 1991. The beating was captured on camera by George Holliday, a San Fernando Valley resident who grabbed his new camcorder to film the commotion from his apartment balcony. That video, which he later sent to a local television station—and which was subsequently rebroadcast for days, weeks, months—seemed to be the sort of tangible and irrefutable evidence that would make this an open-and-shut case. Until, remarkably, it wasn’t.
“Today, the system failed us,” L.A.’s mayor, Tom Bradley, told the city—and the world.
Smith’s imagined dinner party, and really, the play as a whole, is meant to juxtapose thoughts and conversations among people of different strata—races, classes, geographical locations—who under real-life circumstances, within the city's sprawling expanse, would seldom be thrown together. It was a way to get at L.A.’s vivid and complex racial canvas. The broken sentences, the intersecting words—and worlds—create a hypnotic stream-of-consciousness effect; the scene re-creates that charged landscape, the opinions, observations, and beliefs that, in a moment, can turn into kindling.
The play’s ebbs and flows, its spikes and whispers—they are in dialogue, as Smith later tells me, “with the imagined other.”
Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 was a much-anticipated event when it premiered on the Mark Taper Forum’s stage in downtown Los Angeles the spring of 1993. Described as “documentary theater,” the production was a one-woman tour de force in which Smith took on as many as 35 roles—figures she’d interviewed over the expanse of approximately nine months—and brought them into the darkened theater-space with startling accuracy. Smith wasn’t simply reciting words and pauses but was embodying their personas—their beings, filled with their fears, angers, sadness, epiphanies, yearnings, and dreams. While race and class and the hierarchies they construct were certainly elements of the discourse, Smith was seeking something more than causes and solutions. She was searching for a way to understand American character in the late 20th century.
In this new production, previewing March 8 (opening March 15) at the Mark Taper Forum, five actors—Hugo Armstrong, Lovensky Jean-Baptiste, Lisa Reneé Pitts, Jeanne Sakata, and Sabina Zúñiga Varela—will step into a selection of the roles that Smith first performed. As well, a revised text will create space for updated material. The play has transformed many times over the past 30 years as she’s switched it up—spliced in interviews or swapped out others—but at its core, as we listen to the words from the actors, so many of the conditions, clashes, hierarchies, and heartbreaks remain the same.
In a gray pleated-pants-and-jacket set and well-traveled boots, Smith tiptoes into the rehearsal space, quietly pulling out a chair that has been placed next to Daniel and his assistant director, Derek Dubrae Jackson. She positions herself a few inches behind them so that she can take in the entire setup, see the players at work, in motion.
The performers have now switched scenes and are trading roles as jurors, and Smith has already produced a notebook and pen from her teal handbag and is rapidly making notes as she keeps her eyes trained on the actors. They are rehashing a crucible moment in the jury room that finally allowed them, as one juror explains, to “come out of their prejudice”—to speak frankly and dive into the heart of the matter.
Soon enough, Smith’s up. Moving about the space, looking at the assembly from different angles. Perspectives. She pulls pages from the binder. Sidebars in whispers with Daniel. She’s adding and subtracting, reimagining.
Later, when Daniel calls for a break, Smith and I are led by Lindsay Johnston, junior publicist for Center Theatre Group (CTG), through the expanse of Phoenix Hall, a cavernous, hangar-like building on WLCAC’s main campus. Since the 1960s—just before Watts lit up in 1965 in a headline-grabbing civil unrest—the organization has been an important community hub providing a raft of social services including job training, senior services, and childcare support for the greater Watts area. WLACC was not untouched during the most turbulent days of spring 1992 but was rebuilt, transformed, and augmented into a center that now offers arts and culture components, including this large theater space. This morning as the actors awaited their PCR results in the entry area, a job fair was in full swing.
Smith and I thread our way through an exhibition that’s part of the center’s Watts Museum of Civil Rights. There is a re-creation of a sunny luncheonette on display, with signs and photos that detail more about Jim Crow history. Just beyond that is the “Hall of Shame,” which features, under plexiglass cases, a display of racist antique memorabilia—board games, toothpaste containers, dinnerware, all featuring heinous blackface caricatures—that were widely available and peddled as part of American commerce in the 1800s and well into the following century.
In an adjacent alcove, we pull up chairs at a dinette set, that may or may not be part of a museum display. It looks like something that would have not been out of place at a grandmother’s or a great-aunt’s some 40 years ago—the only feature missing is the doily at the center. Considering the history we have just physically and metaphorically passed through, there is something reviving about gathering around a table that feels both hospitable and familiar.
Trailing Smith through this warren of rooms cracks open a store of vivid memories for me. Thirty years ago, I shadowed her for a cover feature that I was reporting for L.A. Weekly. I was a young reporter trying to wrap my head around race, identity, and territory in Los Angeles, writing stories that I hoped would make the abstract concrete, the discrete and marginalized seen.
It had been fascinating to watch her, close up, those dark, alert eyes trained on everything: Not just the words—whether they were ornate, or spare, or halting—but how a body occupied a chair, what happened with someone’s hands as they spoke. Their eyes? How did the sentences flow? At a meeting in a rehearsal space at the Music Center Annex, I watched her transform, astonishingly, into a UCLA anthropology professor whose interview I’d witnessed. He was in the room. Then gone. A feat beyond mimicry, it was channeled energy. I think about how many of her subjects must still live inside her. Accessible. Ready.
We can’t discuss Twilight without discussing not just the deep past but the dire backdrop of today. Grim happenstance would have it that on January 27, the very morning I dashed into my local bookstore to pick up a copy of the Anchor Books edition of Smith’s script, my social media feeds crackled with announcements—warnings, more accurately—about the same-day release of video that captured the brutal police beating of 29-year-old Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tennessee. News reports echoed the messages embedded in the description of the police body cam recording: “Footage contains graphic content and language. Some may find offense. Viewer discretion is advised." With the book in my hand, its cover image featuring a plume of dark smoke against palm trees, its content an all-too-familiar narrative, the moment felt beyond déjà vu. As Smith wrote in the introduction to the text, back in 1994, “The video of the Rodney King beating, which seemed to ‘tell all,’ apparently did not tell enough, and the prosecution lost, as their lead attorney told me, ‘the slam-dunk case of the century.’ The City of Los Angeles lost much more.”
From the beginning, in all of the work that is part of Smith’s series of performances “On the Road: A Search for American Character”—of which Twilight is a critical link—she has been clear that she is not looking for causes or solutions. In the case of Twilight, the play is, she wrote, “an attempt to explore the shades of that loss.”
What fell away when the jury made its decision, when “justice” wasn’t served? What did it symbolize? What did it convey? And how did it change us?
Every person whom she portrays has a presence, she says, “that is much more important than the information they give.” They are prisms, witnesses, mirrors—a collective conscience. They are ways not just to see, but to move through another’s world. In this, she’s closing up space between us: “As I was interviewing people, I was always thinking about how they were talking to each other in a kind of way.”
She landed in Los Angeles yesterday morning; hit fast-forward. She sat in on her first rehearsal and met the cast. In the evening, she had a catch-up dinner with one of the production’s dramaturgs, Marcos Nájera, a multimedia journalist and educator. Smith tells me that it’s hard to calculate how long it’s been since she spent real, on-the-ground time in this city. When she is here, “usually, do I call it L.A. or ‘here to work on a job’? Which is another world. Last time [it] was to work on Shonda’s [Rhimes] show For the People.… Every time I’ve been here, I’m in a bubble.”
While L.A. is a place that she, at times, finds difficult to get her head around, this mission is different. Today Smith is sunk down right in the center of territory she has moved through, next to people she’s engaged with and become close to. Nájera follows along from a script perched on a music stand, listening to the rhythm of lines.
Already, it’s clear that this is a fluid process. Smith is attentive to the fine details, what feels real, what flows; her eyes, at times, narrow almost into a wince, at what does not, what might take us out of the moment.
“The play has changed so much over the years,” Smith says. “There’s the version I did here. The version that I did at the Public Theater. The version I did on Broadway, the road version, which was completely different… and then the movie.” Most recently, a revamped version of Twilight was performed in New York in 2021, it too with five actors; and from there it traveled to American Repertory Theater at Harvard University in the fall of 2022. That reworking includes material from author and journalist Héctor Tobar, whose voice brings it up to date “in terms of evoking George Floyd”—a Black man murdered by a police officer, the grim spectacle also captured on video in the spring of 2020.
“I always say the Los Angeles riots sort of made my career because, as you know, we go in and out of our interest in race relations in America,” she says, reflecting a pitch of weariness in her voice. “Fires in the Mirror, which I was working on at the time in New York, was also about racial discord. A lot of people came to see Fires in the Mirror because they… they were out of sorts about the Los Angeles riots. Which was a bigger, national thing: you could not live in America and not know that it had happened.”
Fires also connected her to Gordon Davidson, the late trailblazing artistic director for the Taper. Davidson had flown to New York to see the production and made a point to venture backstage. “Gordon, you know, was a legend at the time. He was really, really excited and he wanted to meet. We did not sit down thinking I was going to come to L.A. We went to breakfast, of all places, at the Algonquin,” she remembers, with a laugh. “‘I'd love you to do something at my theater,’ he said. I remember we were sort of both just looking at each other and going, Yeah… Yeah.”
The “something,” as they spoke, became obvious: the unrest was there, raw and fresh, ready for her to explore.
Smith touched down in L.A. back in those still-tense and frayed months of 1992, post-unrest. She crisscrossed the city with her assistant in the field, Kishisa Jefferson—now Ross—a dancer, recent college graduate, and native Angeleno who had her own cache of shortcuts and back ways. Her job was to drive Smith to her scheduled interviews and gather releases—sometimes, remarkably, getting in four or five meetings in a day. “Kishisa has the entire journal of everywhere we went. I mean, amazing. And she was a baby then! I mean, this must have been among her first jobs.” Together, they traversed boundaries and into territory that most L.A. inhabitants do not cover in an entire lifetime, to get at what people were thinking and feeling.
What Smith was mining for had much more to do with how we operate in the world. Words are simply signals, she wrote in her introduction to the Anchor Books edition of Twilight: “Words are not an end in themselves. They are a means to evoking the character of the person who spoke them.”
The brokenness of L.A.—the shattered glass, the fractured buildings, the collapsed hopes—was a metaphor: interiors made visible.
“The reason it’s interesting to go to places where there’s disruption is that people have to work harder to tell you what happened,” she explains. “So all throughout the play, there are these incredible structures of language that are so unique to everybody as they were struggling to find words for something and there were no words.”
It’s the other shards, the ruptured language, the struggle to find your voice, your words, your footing, the ums, ahs, uhs—the pauses. They evoke something much more real than placeholder terms, the blizzard of buzzwords that Smith sees as only blocking discourse, not enhancing it; something to prop oneself up with or hide behind.
“Yes. Now we have ‘the words.’ But are we having a conversation? We have so many more words, now, Lynell! So many words and words and words. You know, but is the conversation any better? No. Unless there’s a part of you where you say, ‘I don’t know.’ What do you not know, right? It’s not about proving that you’re smart. That's a disaster.”
Even this manner of discourse reveals something of one’s character, a state of mind: “If you are in this riot and all you are talking is academic jargon, then you did not feel anything. You’re just able to do that without it penetrating, well enough that you have to work to come up with what you think. What’s your philosophy? I’m very interested in individuality.”
Reconsidering Twilight, in this moment of a string of Black murders, made public and hypervisible as they cycle through our social media feeds, prompts Daniel and the team to confront myriad questions—practical, political, and philosophical—about the life of a piece of work. “I mean, I guess you have to ask, ‘Why does a play get locked?’ What do you wish for it to happen when you lock it? So this play has changed? Yes. With some of the circumstances of the play not having changed, but who speaks has changed and how and when they speak has changed,” says Smith.
“One of these things people always ask me, you know, ‘What do you want the audience to get out of it?’ And I always say, ‘Well, you know, it’s really not a shopping mall. You know, the relationship with my standing before the audience is a relationship.’ And I think about what they’re bringing, right? They’re bringing some kind of approximate experience—no matter how far, how long or big that proximity is from things. And so this audience will come in with Tyre and we hope, we hope nobody else past Tyre.”
It is a heavyhearted acknowledgment to identify this work as “just the right play for just right now,” says director Daniel. “I know that everyone would like to think that what they are doing is ‘just the right thing for the right time,’ but in this case, I think it has a lot to do with Anna’s courage.” That and her steadfastness, her determination to stand in a moment where wounds are still open. “To not point an accusatory finger at anyone,” he adds. “It’s up to you to decide.”
For Daniel, it has been an opportunity to explore the legacy of that 30-year-old event, how it has imprinted on those who experienced the chaos of those days and those Angelenoes who grew up living in its shadow, through family memories. “There was an emphasis on making this a homegrown production with the actors and directors," says Daniel, who was tapped by CTG's former artistic director, playwright and performer Luis Alfaro. “I met with Anna and we just talked about my vision and she was very open.”
Against that layered, historic backdrop is a litany of new brutalities, of lives redirected or cut short. “There will be identification and familiarity,” Daniel explains. “Just naturally we bring a knowledge of these instances with us—Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. The audience will come in with this knowledge. So I want the Taper to be abuzz. Electric. We’re not seeing history; what we're seeing, possibly played out in front of us, is something that can happen at any time.“
Having Smith in the room has helped to sharpen that urgency, says Daniel: “Our time around the table has been fruitful.” Learning about her methodology, but also her impulses and inspirations, has given members of the production something tangible to draw from. “Everyone is now approaching it with this heightened sense of what this text means—the interactions with the interviewer. That was something I couldn’t just tell them.”
To learn up close, firsthand, completes a circle for actor Lovensky Jean-Baptiste. He first performed the haunting Bey monologue, “Limbo/Twilight #2,” in 1996, while he was in high school. Back then, Jean-Baptiste had been combing the library stacks in North Miami Beach. “I was doing this academic event, Forensics Speech and Debate, where you’d grab a monologue and you’d compete against each other,” he says. “I picked up this play and it says Twilight, and it [worked] perfectly because everything is kind of a monologue.” He read a bit about the playwright and was intrigued. “When I had been in school, you know, we were forced to read Shakespeare and, you know, Reconstruction-era pieces. And this was the first time that I had read something that really spoke to me as, like, a young Black man, in an urban setting. It was kind of like an inner city, Miami setting and they were talking about…gang truces and…overcoming violence and it was something that really spoke to me.”
It was his entrée to a career in acting. “Who would have thought, like, 30 years later that I would, you know, meet Anna Deavere Smith,” says Jean-Baptiste. “So amazing.”
In their sessions at WLCAC, Smith retraced crucial backstory, explaining to the cast how the play emerged and then shape-shifted over time. “Anna…originally, and you might have overheard this, had the idea of creating this piece for a range of actors. [It] later became a one-woman show.” The current version flips this. “I think that that gives [the audience] the ability to really see people in Los Angeles. You know, the broad range of races and identities really meld, and I think it’s been great to play with that,” says Jean-Baptiste.
Late afternoon, Kishisa Ross slips into the rehearsal space. Cradled in her arm is that “journal”—the detailed collection of paperwork she’d compiled and saved that documents her and Smith’s travels across Greater Los Angeles 30 years ago. Catching sight of her, Smith’s eyes widen, then soften. She envelops Ross in a hug, holds it for a meaningful, extended beat.
Masked up, a tight group of us—actors, directors, dramaturg, journalist—lean over this incredible time capsule: pages of notes, memos, call sheets, xeroxes of Thomas Bros. maps, phone numbers. On a computer printout, I show up as “Press Person”: my tagalong interview scheduled for 2 p.m., January 15, 1993, following a conversation with director John Singleton.
Smith introduces Ross formally to the room and asks her to share details of some of the interviews she sat in on: their rainy-day meeting with Angela King, Rodney’s aunt; their audience with then–LAPD chief Daryl Gates; and the aura of Twilight Bey, whom the play’s title evokes.
Smith and Ross first hit the road in the summer of 1992, “about four months post–the riots. So you were just seeing the clearings, like the burned buildings that haven’t been demolished yet, things of that nature,” says Ross.
Most days, Ross recalls, there wasn’t a lot of talk between them. Smith was fully inside her research: “She was either prepping for the next interviews, or getting information down for the interview she had just done. She even had a cell phone back then, a rarity for that time.”
Ross tells me that she saved all of this because she knew it would be important: a gathering of people who were willing to talk, even though so many of us were still working through what to call “it,” let alone what it all meant. It was a front-row seat to history, sitting in a room listening to Angela King speak about her nephew; commiserating with Denise Harlins, aunt of Latasha—a Black 15-year-old girl slain by a Korean shopkeeper just 13 days after Rodney King’s beating—hoping to keep her niece’s memory alive; being mesmerized by the words and vision of Bey, a gang-truce architect.
“I remember thinking I didn’t want to disappoint Anna or say anything about something I didn’t know anything about, just to answer a question or inject into a conversation. I had so much admiration for what she was doing.”
For Ross, both the experience of fact gathering with Smith and the play itself are touchstones—unique units of measure. While the Los Angeles that Ross now traverses looks markedly different, the ghosts and echoes are around many corners, and unfinished business—blank and blighted storefronts, crumbling infrastructure—hides in plain sight.
Is this a different Los Angeles from the one in Twilight of 30 years ago? For those of us who were here, negotiating the aftershocks, both physical and psychic, there’s no way to think about that time and not hear Rodney King’s plea: “Can we, can we get along? Can we stop making it horrible for the older people and the kids?”
What is L.A.’s mood? Its temperature? Better, worse, or the same? I ask Dorinne K. Kondo, a professor of American studies and ethnicity, as well as anthropology, at the University of Southern California who has returned to serve as part of Twilight’s dramaturgical team, working alongside Nájera and assistant dramaturg Lindsay Jenkins. “There’s just the spectacular violence. It feels, I would say, in some ways, even more tense, that things are just kind of on edge,” Kondo answers. “And then there are the legacies of trauma from ’92, to ’65, and then hundreds of years before that.”
All of this informs the moment we occupy presently, how we carry ourselves in the world.
“As a dramaturg,” says Kondo, “my job is to see holes, right? Nothing's perfect.” Back in the ’90s, it was just Smith and her Walkman—signal to noise. Smith’s store of interviews had been recorded on cassettes, from which she was crafting verbatim monologues, extemporaneously. There were no pages for them to see, not until much later in the process, Kondo remembers. She and journalist Héctor Tobar would respond to Smith’s performance, consider who was being portrayed, offer critique, voice concerns, float questions. “Her distinctive acting theory really depends on these, you know, minute observations and reenactments of gesture.”
It’s not her writing on the page, but her embodying a voice, Kondo says. “Anna opens herself to have, you know, two very strong, conflicting—and sometimes incommensurable—opinions, and [then] somehow help to work through it, [and] somehow create something through that process of difference. Like no one does that anymore, especially now. What a blessing, you know. I’ve never cried so much and been so happy.”
“Héctor and I were, you know, were wanting to break up the Black/white binary, that’s why we were there, and to some extent it worked. But you know, sometimes I wasn’t always diplomatic. But I was trusting that she would at least try to listen,” reflects Kondo. “Anna welcomed so many dramaturgs into the room. No one does that. Many people don’t know how to deal with that.”
In a 2022 podcast Kondo produced, “The Arts of Racial Reckoning: Anna Deavere Smith,” marking the 30th anniversary of the L.A. uprising, she spoke to Smith about their often emotionally charged process. Smith, reflecting on those sessions, “said something very moving and touching that I didn’t realize,” says Kondo. “She said, ‘I felt you and Héctor loved me.’”
Smith’s work intentionally grapples with tensions, fractures. In that struggle for language, in the intimacy of an exchange, she herself has been amazed to hear what cracks open, to have witnessed epiphanies and revelations. “I mean, we’re lucky. Journalism gives you reason to do that. My tape recorder, you know, it’s a way to live in the world. I’m really happy, I’ve been able to live in the world that way.”
As I sit across the dinette table from Smith, watching her reach, pause, carefully choose her own words, I consider something Kondo underscored: Smith’s gift is her ability to listen in a full and active way. To train her focus, to honor the breaks and verbal tics. “Because for Anna, that’s where someone’s poem is.”
Smith is never too far away from people who have lodged slivers of themselves inside her: their cadences, their perspectives, their images, their words. “I think I’m a person who is trying to understand America,” says Smith. “I choose to do so in the moments of disruption and discord. But as Tyrone Davis [CTG’s associate artistic director] said when I wrote to him when Tyre Nichols was killed—I said: ‘Are you watching this?’”
She takes a beat, slides, ever so briefly, into the register of Davis’s voice: “Well, Anna, it just looks like we just can’t get your play to be historical.”
Then she’s back. Herself. Brow furrowed. Leaning into her next question. There’s always the next question, the question that will always propel her:
And what does that mean?•