He didn't fight back.
That’s what I remember about the Rodney King police beating of 1991. He didn’t raise a gun or punch an officer in the more than 80-second-long video clip. I was a kid then, and it would be years before I would obtain my license and get pulled over by police for the first time. But that video with nearly a dozen officers standing around while several kicked, stomped and swung batons never left me.
King lived. But brain damage, cracked facial bones and other injuries changed his life, and later, courts found that his civil rights were indeed violated. King’s case and the story of the surrounding community are re-examined in Anna Deavere Smith’s play “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,” which she first performed solo in the ‘90s. This reimagined production with five cast members was first produced in the fall of 2021 at the Signature Theatre in New York City.
Using hundreds of interviews Smith conducted with people, directly and indirectly, involved with the case—from former Los Angeles police chief Daryl Gates, community activist Gina Rae (aka Queen Malkah), author and professor Elaine Kim, and more—Smith delves deep into the details that highlight the humanity of King and those affected by the riots that ensued after the acquittal of the cops in question. The production at American Repertory Theater’s Loeb Drama Center, presented in association with Signature Theatre, shows now through Sept. 24.
The play, smartly directed by Taibi Magar (“Macbeth in Stride”), features a sensational five-person ensemble (four of whom performed in the 2021 production) embodying numerous characters: Tiffany Rachelle Stewart, who portrays a Pep Boys worker, a Panamanian mother, former chairwoman of the Blank Panther Party, among others; Wesley T. Jones as former gang member Twilight Bey, who organized a truce, an activist and an attorney; and Francis Jue, who morphs from a professor to shooting victim to the late operatic grand diva Jessye Norman.
Clad in a voluminous bright fuchsia robe with exaggerated sleeves and black satin turban, Jue’s Norman asks what could she have done but sing? Black people have a great tradition of singing ourselves through trouble, she says. From the bowels of slave ships to fields and marches on Washington, Black folk sing to get through the day, Jue’s Norman explains. But if Norman felt like she hadn’t been heard like the protesters, her rumbling rage, she says, would come up from the bottom of her feet and explode like a roar.
The best thing about documentary-style theater, especially in this case, is that it allows for numerous points of view. The actors share the accounts of the interviewees verbatim using the original accents Smith denotes in her script. No matter what side of the line one is on, it’s clear that everyone who participated in Smith’s process agrees that there was (and still is in some respects) a war going on.
Jones’ Keith Watson, a co-assailant in the attack on white truck driver Reginald Denny during the riots, calls the whole situation a “man-made catastrophe,” a simple but accurate observation of the melee and of America’s race problem in general.
Throughout the show, footage from the upheaval ups the ante. People break into stores, attack motorists and passersby, set fires, and more. The unrest cost the city nearly $1 billion in property damages, more than 60 people died and thousands were arrested. At one point, the camera shows the words “Look What You Created” spray painted in red on the side of a building.
An anonymous talent agent (portrayed by Carl Palmer) recalls where he was during the tumult and wonders if he should absorb a little guilt as a white person. He thought it would make sense for protesters to burn down white neighborhoods instead of burning down their own. But he found what they did even more dramatic.
Smith’s “Twilight” is a cautionary tale that doesn’t try to answer America’s race problem, nor could it. But what it does provide is a more holistic view of a hurting LA community, that doubles as a view of America as a whole.
During the height of the pandemic, the torture and killing of George Floyd and subsequent protests forced what some call a racial reckoning. While talking about King and Floyd, author and former LA Times journalist Héctor Tobar (played by Elena Hurst) says it’s a tale of two videos. Hurst’s Tobar recalls the protests and how suburbanites were spray painting “black lives matter” on their driveways. He never thought he’d see that.
As a kid, I never thought I’d see someone killed on camera. But since the brutal beating of King, I, like many, have watched Black and brown people get beaten and killed on camera at the hands (and knees) of police, making King’s case as relevant today as it always was. At least in Floyd’s case, former police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted.
And though police brutality persists, I hope for change. In the show, scholar and author Cornel West (portrayed by the entire ensemble) talks about Chekhov, Coltrane and hope.
Hope, West says, is when you look at the evidence and it doesn’t look good, but you take a leap of faith anyway.
“Twilight: Los Angeles 1992” is showing now through Sept. 24 at American Repertory Theater’s Loeb Drama Center.