When Anna Deavere Smith first performed Twilight Los Angeles, 1992, her searing solo show about the aftermath of the Rodney King beating trial, the audience was as raw as the show itself.

“It was probably crazy,” she says now, “to try to put the play on as quickly as we did in L.A. It was within the year. The boys who’d beaten up Reginald Denny still hadn’t come to trial. I went into rehearsal the day the second verdict came down on the police officers. In some ways I felt I was going out half made up.”

The result, though, was so electric that Smith easily achieved her aim of creating “civic event” theater. Her method—part journalism, part scholarship—is to interview everyone from presidential candidates to looters, then act excerpts from their statements verbatim. Her impersonations of better-known personages are uncanny enough that they seem more than the sum of mere accents and body language. As one observer noted, “She’s the ultimate impressionist: She does people’s souls.”

This may be why folks have such a hard time pegging Smith (the Pulitzer and Tony committees couldn’t even agree on whether she was a playwright) and why she could moderate a Race in Theater discussion last Monday between white critic Robert Brustein and black playwright August Wilson. “Light-skinned black girl,” she laughs. “I’ve been dealing with that all my life.”

Asked whether her projects—which include Fires in the Mirror, about the Crown Heights racial disturbances, and an upcoming piece about the U.S. presidency—might in some sense relate to first-person “slave narratives” that provide historians with an inside look at pre-Civil War America, she is more cautious. The thought did occur to her, she says, when she was conducting interviews about AIDS and its devastation for a New York benefit performance. As the real-life tales she gathered dovetailed with tales derived from popular culture, she began to sense how personal stories were being brought together “to make one’s life meaningful in this tragedy…. And I thought, well, these could be the slave narratives of our time.”

“Historians have to come to conclusions, and journalists have to come to conclusions, and I’m not—I pay for, in fact—not being as interested in conclusions as I am in details and excursions that people take when they’re talking to me. I think those excursions are the things that show how they are witnessing and being a part of the time we live in.”

Smith is aware, however, that her acted-documentary approach has potential pitfalls. “It’s my understanding that in some cases the people who [wrote down] the slave narratives put a false dialect on them. When my acting fails, then it’s doing that too; it’s putting a false dialect on somebody. I work hard to try not to do that.”—Bob Mondello

Twilight Los Angeles, 1992 opens Friday at Ford’s Theater. For reservations and information call 202-347-4833.