On April 28, 1992, Los Angeles gang member Twilight Bey successfully organized a truce between the notoriously ruthless Bloods and Crips. After years of rivalry, this cease-fire cast a calm joy over South L.A. The peace lasted only through the night.
Walking into Threshold Repertory Theatre, I was certain I would cry at Twilight Los Angeles: 1992. I was almost two years old when the riots broke out in L.A.: I would not appreciate or understand the devastation of that 1992 court decision until now. In my mind the names revolve: Rodney King, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Walter Scott. Surely, given the nature of the 1992 riots (52 dead after three days) and the topical theme of police brutality — surely this would bring tears to my eyes. But I left the theater dry-eyed, wondering what exactly I had missed.
Written by Anna Deavere Smith, Twilight: Los Angeles 1992 is a production designed around multiple monologues (over 25 in the original screenplay) in which actors speak verbatim from interviews which Smith conducted herself. In Threshold's version, there are 13 separate characters, played by three women and four men. The audience is given a confusing pamphlet outlining the actors' pedigrees and the names of the characters that they will be playing.
But these blurbs do little to explain the performance. I needed a couple of solid hours on Google Books before I could appreciate everything Smith was trying to accomplish. Maybe it is because, as I said, I was only two years old when the riots broke out. It is an altogether different experience living through a historical event versus simply teaching yourself the history. So yes, I was confused. I was frantically trying to figure out who was speaking — is this white actor playing a Mexican policeman — was this one of the four men who viciously beat King? Who exactly is this politician figure — did he play a particular role in the trial or its aftermath?
The point, though, which I believe director Brendan Kelly very nearly accomplished, is that it doesn't matter specifically the name or the position or the role of the person who is speaking. It is the story. It is the story that the actor tells, like actor Adam Miles embodying the persona of Reginald Denny, a white semi-truck driver who was pulled out of his truck and beaten nearly to death by four men, and who was then saved by four good Samaritans. Miles slurs his words and limps and smiles goofily, speaking like he may have lost a bit of his mind (Denny's skull was fractured in 91 places) as he explains what happened to him: "When they cut off my hair they gave it to me in a plastic bag. And it was just long hair and glass and blood." And I wasn't sure who Miles was playing or what had happened to his character, but I felt the violence behind it, and I ached for the 2,000 injured, the 52 dead.
Threshold is the perfect venue for this kind of production — the audience is cast into pitch-black darkness as actors sans any kind of props stand no more than 100-feet away on a slightly elevated wooden stage. Stage lights illuminate the speaker — only one actor is ever in the light. And the speakers are captivating — every one. No story falls flat, no intonations are misplaced; the acting is impeccable. But the too-small TV screen playing slides and videos set to music is merely distracting. I would have much rather heard one more story, one more account. The original screenplay does call for the video additions, but I think given the brevity of Threshold's version, they would have been better off without.
Gang member Twilight Bey, the man who gave the city of L.A. a brief moment of hope before the riots broke out the next day, is the last person to speak in Smith's play. He is calm, his words are measured and poetic. "And I don't affiliate darkness with anything negative. I affiliate darkness of what was first," he says. The title of the play is explained — twilight is the time between the light and the dark. While Threshold's adaptation does not feel fully-fleshed out, it does feel like a genuine exploration of this purgatorial state. I did not cry, but I did leave the theater feeling like I was trapped, as Bey describes it, in "that time between day and night, limbo." And because I still feel that way today, hours later, I would say that Threshold's production was a success.