It’s the quiet moments that make you want to weep.xxxxxxxxx Never mind that Anna Deavere Smith’s impersonations of famous personalitiesfrom diva Jessye Norman to scholar Cornel West to politico Bill Bradleyare at once bracingly funny and eerily accurate. In Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, her dazzlingly theatrical study of the riots that exploded after the verdicts in the first Rodney King beating trial, she can wring your heart unexpectedly when she’s portraying people you’ve never heard ofrepeating their outraged observations on, and their bewildered questions about, a world-shaking event.
“Repeating” because, for those who don’t know, what Smith does isn’t traditional theater. It’s less and more, a peculiar, exciting, and wholly original art that’s part documentary, part oral history, part performance, part exquisitely sensitive cut-and-paste.
In Twilight, as in Fires in the Mirror, her earlier study of the Crown Heights violence, she has collected through one-on-one interviews the ideas, indeed the very words, of key riot figures and bystanders alike; on the stage, she becomes her interview subjects, bringing these disparate people together, speaking their words verbatim, bringing us face to face with them and insisting that we listen. Her genius lies in the way she dovetails the ideas of individuals as different as Elaine Young, a breathtakingly shallow L.A. real estate agent who natters on about partying the riots away at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and Keith Watson, who thinks of his vicious attack on trucker Reginald Denny as a blow for civil rights, an action that ranks him “up there with Martin and Malcolm.”
Smith never judges the people she depictsnot even LAPD chief Daryl Gates, explaining why he spent the first few hours of the riots at a black-tie party. She leaves the judgments, the conclusion-drawing, to the audience, with its range of perspectives, and so the show is less a lecture or an editorial than an invitation to debate.
The tone veers from laugh-out-loud funny to ash-bitter, from jaded to achingly vulnerable: With tremendous empathy and a kind of tragic, immovable dignity, Smith becomes a blithely grateful Latina who miraculously survived a stray bullet, a bewildered Korean keeper of a burned-out shop, and a middle-class observer uneasily examining her conscience. With equal facility, she is Rodney King’s Aunt Angela, angry and sorrowful; police commissioner Stanley Sheinbaum, ironic and funny; slick lawyer Charles Lloyd and communitarian ideologue Queen Malkah, on opposite sides in the tragedy of Latasha Harlins; painter Rudy Salas, into whom the police once beat an abiding hatred and distrust.
These transformations are accomplished with a minimum of accoutermenta pair of glasses, a sweater, a hat, a change of seating arrangementand an astonishing repertoire of affects and inflections. And Smith has shaped her story as well as she shapes her characters; the arc of the evening is as carefully thought out as the arc of each vignette. There’s music in this performance, a rhythm and a line as seductive as the brooding saxophone that is the first sound the audience hears.
Smith speaks, at the end of this provocative, exciting examination of our national character, of standing in a kind of hopeful twilight area between a benighted time of racial polarity, a time of obsessive focus on black-and-white divisions, and a new, more enlightened era marked by a better if still imperfect understanding of our complex, multiracial society. Perhaps she is too optimistic; who can tell? But how thrilling, how eerie, how forbiddingly appropriate, that she should speak of these things on the stage at Ford’s, with all its reminders of the promiseand the terrible riskssuch transformative times entail.
Imagine an Auntie Mame as written by Saki, and you’ll have Graham Greene’s Aunt Augusta, who enlivens her stodgy bank-manager nephew’s life by dragging him off against his will on a series of international excursions and espionages circa 1969. Fans of the novel may not appreciate Giles Havergal’s stage adaptation, which asks four identically clad male actors to play all the parts: aunt, nephew, troubled American coed, wispy English spinster, South African doorman, sleek Italian lothario, eccentric CIA operative, Paraguayan virgin, and a whole host more. But while the material could profitably be trimmed, Rep Stage’s production (smoothly directed by Kasi Campbell) is accomplished and stylish enough to make it at minimum an entertaining diversionand perhaps even a useful lesson on how to wring the most out of life.
Havergal’s conceit can’t help cranking up the camp value of this slightly dated amorality play, and soap-opera veteran Nigel Reed isn’t afraid to run the risk of looking (and sounding) silly as the free-thinking octogenarian Aunt Augusta. Indeed, all the actorsBill Largess, Brian McMonagle, and Bruce Nelson are the othersthrow themselves into the masquerade with brio, trading lines and handling stage business with a confident snap that bespeaks either instant rapport or long, long rehearsal, and bringing a kind of over-the-top glee to even the smallest parts (did I mention the wolfhound and the terrifying German military frau?). Lou Stancari’s one-locale-fits-the-world set is lavish and solid, but unobtrusive enough not to overpower the play, which is really more about moods, or maybe attitudes, than events.
In their matching blue suits and maroon sweaters, the four actors make an admirably uniform ensemble; if pressed, I’d have to say McMonagle is probably the most endearing as Miss Keene, who pines quietly and hopelessly for the banker’s affections; Bruce Nelson is alternately understated and effective as the American spy, gently and affectionately wacky as the pot-smoking nymphet, and annoyingly mannered as Augusta’s whilom lover, the doorman Wordsworth. All of them are surprisingly engaging taking turns as the tightly wound narrator, who quite naturally learns to loosen up, lighten up, and live a little in the end.CP