Photo by Keith Ian PolakoffIn April 1992, Los Angeles exploded. And though it has been called everything from a riot to a rebellion, there's more to the aftershocks of the not-guilty verdicts delivered to the four officers accused of beating Rodney King than one little word can hold. The literal mayhem spread from Parker Center to Long Beach, San Francisco, even related incidents in Vegas and Atlanta, and the not-so-literal damage gets its due in this Cal State Long Beach production of Anna Deavere Smith's Twilight, an examination of various Angelenos in the aftermath of that not-so-domestic disturbance.
Twilight was originally conceived and produced as a one-woman show, but this starkly powerful University Players version ups the cast to four. And although the beginning moments are weak (and would collapse entirely without the strong, soulful singing of Ellen D. Williams), director Robert Allen effectively dredges up the dark emotions in the verbatim interviews of victims and witnesses.
The lithe and vibrant Paula Lema commands the stage as the representative voice of various African-Americans, while Kassie Thornton has the unenviable task of relating notoriously insensitive LAPD chief Daryl Gates' views. She transitions well from the shallow concerns of a Beverly Hills woman to the heartfelt gratitude of Reginald Denny, but some of her segments aren't as strong as they should be. Williams expresses the concerns of the Korean community, casting the racial question in terms more complex than black and white, and though Wendy Chaves' Latino voices aren't always clear, her passion shines through.
It's a spare production: simply dressed women stand under a screen flashing slides representing the different speakers. Chaves and Williams stand silently at the sides during the longer passages afforded to Thornton and Lema, strengthening the underlying theme that important ethnic groups were sidelined during post-crisis discussions. But parallels between the experiences of African-American communities, Koreans who have known slavery, and Latinos who've had their civil rights abused chip away at some of the African-American justifications and explanations. Still, it might be by design: a twilight is a period of limbo, playwright Smith says, appropriate for the uneasy relations of race and class illustrated here. And sadly, as we weather post-Sept. 11 tensions, it doesn't seem like a sunrise will be coming any time soon.
Twilight at the Players Theatre at Cal State Long Beach, 1250 Bellflower Blvd., Long Beach, (562) 985-7000. Tues.-Thurs., 6 p.m.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m. Through March 16. $10.