COVER STORY : The Voices of the City : Theater artist Anna Deavere Smith immersed herself in post-riot L.A., listening to the outpouring of a shaken community--and weaving it into a kaleidoscopic, 30-character solo piece, ‘Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992’

<i> Richard Stayton is a playwright and free-lance journalist based in Los Angeles</i>

One year ago, on the verge of her first major career break, an obscure performance artist learned that her New York opening was being canceled. Race riots were erupting 3,000 miles away in Los Angeles. A fuse had been lit, stretching to Manhattan.

Instead of calling her agent, the artist rushed to Times Square and participated in a demonstration against the verdicts in the state trial of the Rodney G. King beating case.

To Anna Deavere Smith, the idea of performing inside a theater while the world outside changed so radically was anathema.


“New York closed down,” Smith remembers, “and I was glad when they canceled my show. I didn’t want to be in this dark hole while it was happening. I felt this longing to have been glued to the television, like most of America.”

What Smith didn’t know then was that the aftermath of those riots would become her life for the better part of the next year. Her performance at the Joseph Papp Public Theater in New York focused on recent race riots in Brooklyn and opened only slightly later than planned. In the audience the first week was Gordon Davidson, artistic director of the Mark Taper Forum.

Soon after his city’s rioting stopped, Davidson invited Smith to come to Los Angeles to create a work that would reflect the myriad voices that raged in pain, sadness and greed after the verdicts in Simi Valley acquitted four police officers charged with beating King.

In an attempt to capture the essence of post-riot Los Angeles, Smith has spent much of the past year talking to gang members, Korean shop owners, police officers and Angelenos of all sorts. And this 42-year-old theater artist, who was born in Baltimore and now lives in San Francisco, is still trying to make some sense of the chaos.

Smith is now in final stages of putting together “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,” set to open June 3 at the Taper. But her process is so fresh and so reliant on current events that even last weekend she was waiting for the verdicts in the officers’ second trial before she could find the form for her “Rashomon” style of storytelling.

“I felt like I was waiting for personal news,” Smith says of last week’s Saturday morning verdicts. “Afraid to open the letter and see if it was going to say yes or no. Now the piece has a new focus, taking its shape very much around the verdict.”

The past year has been an eventful one for Smith. Her solo at the Public Theater, “Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities,” made her a finalist for the 1992 Pulitzer Prize in drama, and her televised adaptation will air Wednesday on PBS. In that 90-minute show, she becomes 26 distinct personae, based on the people she interviewed, and speaks in their dialects to the audience.

Her process of working on “Twilight” has been similar, although the research has been far more extensive: For the Crown Heights piece, Smith interviewed people for two weeks and then wrote “Fires.” In Los Angeles, she has taken eight months and is still doing interviews and research.

“Fires” focuses on a one-block stretch of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where the protagonists were Orthodox Jews and African-Americans. In Los Angeles, the strife was citywide. Both works, however, involve city leaders and anonymous folks, celebrities and the impoverished.

Smith is very protective about the content of “Twilight,” not allowing an interviewer to talk to her subjects and not revealing what form the work will take (in part because even she’s not sure). She will say that she has conducted more than 140 interviews, driving from South-Central to Simi Valley, stopping in City Hall, Korean mini-malls and Hollywood studios. Along the way she talked to Mayor Tom Bradley, City Councilman and mayoral candidate Mike Woo, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) and Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.).

Actress Anjelica Huston and Rodney King’s aunt Angela King spoke with her too. So did former Police Chief Daryl F. Gates and former professional football player Jim Brown, who now leads a national anti-gang organization, Amer-I-Can.

She also talked to lots of people who are not known at all. One ex-gang member impressed her because he seemed so philosophically peaceful despite his violent surroundings. A Korean grocer broke into tears talking to her, despite his anger at what had happened to his community. A TV writer described a drive-by shooting he had witnessed. None of these people had anything to gain from their confessions to Smith, a stranger to them.

“Anna has this way of making people want to talk and want to say what’s on their mind,” observed Kishisa Jefferson, Smith’s driver and research assistant. “People who were hard to get, once we got Anna to them, would spill their guts. She just gives off this down-home, best-friend, someone-I-can-talk-to type of body language.”

The title of Smith’s work is borrowed from a former gang member dubbed Twilight, who helped negotiate last year’s truce between two of Los Angeles’ most deadly gangs, the Crips and the Bloods.

One person who wouldn’t talk was rap artist Sister Souljah. “That’s the sister who wants to take my words,” Souljah said to one interviewer about Smith.

To help Smith find a focus and create her ambitious world premiere, the Taper staff marshaled its resources as never before.

“This is not playwriting in any conventional sense,” Davidson explains. “It’s a form of anthropological, social and cultural research that comes through interviews and how those knit together. We had to create a new system that would support Smith.”

The Taper has provided Smith with more support than she’s ever received from any theater: a driver, translators, transcribers, Asian-American and Latino dramaturges, a director celebrated for crafting docudramas (Emily Mann, author of “Execution of Justice”), video artists, costume designers, historical archivists, as well as the most coveted ticket in town--a pass to the federal trial of the four white defendants charged with violating black motorist King’s civil rights.

“What hit me the first day (in court) is how white it is,” Smith observes. “I was shocked. The only groups of people of color who come in are from the public. In my own life I’m frequently in predominantly white atmospheres. But I didn’t expect (a mostly white courtroom) because this trial was so much about race.”

More by accident than by design, Smith’s marriage of activism and art has made her one of the most acclaimed new talents in today’s theater world. Her cool objectivity in “Fires in the Mirror” also made Smith a media spokeswoman about what Studs Terkel calls “the American obsession with race.”

For “Fires,” she transformed into a variety of Jewish and black, female and male personalities, dramatizing the 1991 riots that pitted blacks against Hasidic Jews in Crown Heights. Monologues, excerpted from taped interviews with actual riot victims and community leaders, gave voice to multiple points of view.

The critics loved it. “A riveting work that captures the tensions of racial, class and cultural conflict in what is hardly a melting pot but a boiling caldron,” Newsweek’s Jack Kroll declared. “ . . . Smith is an ideal theater artist for the ‘90s as America attempts to synthesize an increasingly diverse culture.”

Davidson saw Smith as representative of the emerging solo performance art scene that spawned Whoopi Goldberg and Lily Tomlin, among others. More important to the Taper, Smith’s work reflected the theater’s own tradition of socially conscious works such as the recent “Angels in America” and docudramas like “The Trial of the Catonsville 9,” “Green Card” and “Zoot Suit.”

But last September, Southern California artists protested the Taper’s commission of an out-of-towner who hadn’t “walked through the flames,” as actor-director-writer Tony Abatemarco wrote. Others implied that an outsider would exploit the tragedy for personal gain.

Davidson says he “didn’t think of her as an outsider until that question came up,” adding that Smith never lived in Crown Heights, either.

Smith did live in Los Angeles intermittently from 1986 to 1990, teaching drama at USC and UCLA, performing at the Los Angeles Theatre Center in August Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” and mounting the world premiere of her play “Piano” in 1990, also at LATC.

However, as an artist, Smith prefers to be “an outsider looking in,” she says, “because I’m very interested in ‘The Other.’ ”

Smith’s technique is to create a kaleidoscopic perspective on a core event, based on tape-recorded interviews with actual people.

For “Twilight,” the hard work of constructing a text began in February during an intensive four-day workshop at the Taper. After listening repeatedly to tapes containing months of interviews, Smith and her collaborators began selecting about 30 “characters” who best exemplify “the heart of Los Angeles.”

Then, wearing a headset, Smith recited the taped interviews until “the repetition like drumming evokes feeling. . . . I really have to wear these words,” she says. Finally, she “embodies” her chosen people, telling their anecdotes, which gradually merge into a theatrical mosaic.

Her effect never resembles a stand-up comic’s impersonation, Smith insists, because her goal isn’t to mock or comment but to become “The Other.”

“I call myself a repeater,” she says. “Or a reiterator, rather than a mimic. . . . The roots of what I do are in the black tradition of oral history.”

But the process is exhausting. Smith has stretched herself so thin these days that she collapsed in her hotel lobby during the February workshop.

Although Smith is currently on leave from Stanford University, where she has taught theater since 1990, her exhaustion is due to more than “Twilight.”

She never anticipated the responsibilities accompanying fame. Journalists are profiling her for Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Lear’s and a host of other national publications. She has performed on “The Arsenio Hall Show” and commented on race in America for “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour” and for Phil Donahue’s PBS special “The Issue Is Race.”

Besides her upcoming Taper run, future stage projects include “Dream” (about dreams among African-Americans), an original performance collaboration for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre’s 35th anniversary, a commissioned play on the Angela Davis conspiracy trial and her series of monologues called “On the Road: A Search for American Character.” (Both “Fires” and “Twilight” belong to this series.)

In person, Smith never reveals stress. Aristocratic, elegant, fastidious about her vegetarian diet, she somewhat resembles her college heroine, Angela Davis--but Davis the professor, not the radical. Smith appears even taller than her slender 5-feet-9 1/2 inches. Maybe that impression comes from her forest of curly hair. Or maybe it’s from her regal posture.

Even when talking, Smith appears to be intent on listening to herself, to the interviewer, to the surrounding restaurant chatter. It’s not difficult to realize just why strangers of every gender and ethnic background confess intimate secrets to this woman. She’s compassionate and respectful and seemingly without hidden agendas.

But there’s also an aura of mystery about her, a compelling ambiguity, as if the hundreds of personalities she has invited to “invade” have transformed Anna Deavere Smith’s “I” into a listener-interpreter.

“I think most people don’t even remember me after the interview,” she says. “I think I’m very unassuming. It’s not on purpose. I just am. There’s not a lot of flash about me. If you think about what acting is supposed to be, my job is to disappear. I’m not interested in myself at all. I’ll probably be 90 before I’ll do a day in the life of Anna Deavere Smith.”

Fond of quoting Harold Pinter’s line “speech is a strategy to cover nakedness,” Smith also likes to quote Malcolm X: “It’s not truth unless it’s spoken.” She thrives in contradictions and laughs about a post-performance question prompted by her ability to identify with “The Other”: “Now, is one of your parents Jewish?”

For Smith, the oldest of five children, her first major influence was a paternal grandfather who believed that “if you say a word often enough it becomes you.” She remembers feeling “on the outside” but having an instinctive talent for mimicry. Her mother was an elementary school teacher who was “religiously committed to teaching these 13-year-olds in the fifth grade how to read. My interest in language probably has some roots in that.”

Smith attended an all-girls high school in Baltimore and Beaver College, a women’s school outside of Philadelphia, where she majored in English. “Like everyone else in the late 1960s,” she says, “I thought that education should be co-ed, but now I’m not so sure. The relationships with those young women was fabulous.”

Her initial career ambition was psychiatry. But her mother, who remembered 11-year-old Anna crying for two days over “West Side Story,” discouraged that first professional dream. “My mother said I was too sensitive.”

Smith graduated from Beaver College in 1971 with vague ambitions to study linguistics or “serve peace.” In search of the “revolution,” she moved to San Francisco and almost by accident enrolled in American Conservatory Theatre’s acting school. Led by ACT Artistic Director Bill Ball, Smith plunged into Shakespearean studies and grew fascinated by the process of “disassembling and reassembling a personality.”

Earning a master’s degree in fine arts for theater in 1977, she moved to New York to pursue an acting career. Smith enjoyed some limited success--small roles in Off Broadway plays and soaps, such as “All My Children” and “One Life to Live”--but was often rejected, she says, because she was the wrong shade of black.

“The sad thing about racial color is it’s so faddish,” Smith says. “That’s sort of sad and dehumanizing. And when I got out of acting school, it was not fashionable to be light-skinned.”

The first acting agent who interviewed Smith said, “I couldn’t send you out because I wouldn’t want to antagonize my client. You don’t look like anything.”

“She meant I didn’t look black enough,” Smith explains. “I’ll never forget a show I wanted to be in and the director said, ‘Girl, you know you’re good, but you know I can’t hire you. You’re too light.’ I think it’s one of the very big inhibiting factors in the early part of my career. It was too confusing to me to fight. It may have something to do with why I started to do my own projects.”

Academia provided Smith’s salvation. In 1978, while teaching acting at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Smith grew increasingly irritated with her students’ self-absorption and faith in psychological realism (the Method).

As an experiment to take her students out of themselves, she brought in celebrity interviews to memorize and recite. “Just repeat it,” Smith began telling students, “and after a while you’ll be Barbara Walters or Paul Newman.”

“My whole mission was really to try to deconstruct this psychological realism thing,” she remembers. “Is the Method, which was developed by a turn-of-the-century European, culturally bound? A lot of acting techniques are very self-oriented. These assumptions that you can find another character in yourself--like ‘Hamlet’s living in me.’ It’s a spiritual dead end.”

Out of this teaching mission came Smith’s breakthrough. Although “embarrassed at how illiterate I am about television,” Smith says, her research led her to watch TV with the sound off, “so I could abstract physical behavior from talking.” One night in 1979, Smith noticed that Sophia Loren was a guest on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” Smith turned up the sound and heard Loren complaining about the theft of her costume jewelry in a Dallas hotel room.

“Loren just defied the whole language and structure of the show,” Smith recalls. “Nobody laughed. The band stopped playing. And then she was followed by Joan Rivers, who not only reinstated the talk show rhythm, she worked the whole audience into a kind of hysteria. So I thought, ‘This show is about America.’ I didn’t know why.”

Smith began watching TV talk shows, searching for moments “when the rhythm of the show would fail, or when a person’s language would fail. I was just like paparazzi , like a crazy person, watching interview shows and tape-recording them and sitting up all night transcribing.”

During this period, she also took an acting workshop conducted by monologuist Spalding Gray, whose solo performances were just beginning to take shape. By example, Gray inspired her own emerging solo process.

Smith soon decided that celebrities were less interesting for her purposes than ordinary people. “I literally walked up to people on the streets and said, ‘I know an actor who looks like you. . . . If you’ll give me an hour of your time, I’ll invite you to see yourself performed.’ ”

In 1983, she began creating her epic series of interview-based performances, “On the Road: A Search for American Character.” A linguist provided her with three questions to ask each subject: 1--Have you ever come close to death? 2--Have you ever been accused of something that you didn’t do? 3--Do you know the circumstances of your birth? Each time these questions provoked unexpected but revealing insights.

“But I stopped asking those questions,” Smith says, “because I became more interested in how groups of people work. Women’s theater groups are teeming with these identity problems of having women of color, gay women, feminists, some theorists, some practical people.”

Smith began going into academic and theatrical organizations to talk to people about their differences.

She would interview participants at conferences, then “perform” the transcripts. Her approach was not always greeted with open arms.

“When I did my first piece at a seminar in Chicago,” she says, “a white feminist wrote a piece of criticism about me that said I was doing a critique of white women. She said that the presence of my blackness, my black body, was evidence of my criticism. I thought if I was fully dutiful to speech rhythms, the color of my skin wouldn’t matter. I was wrong. . . . It was very hurtful, and I feel I’m living it out to this day.”

Despite such rejections from colleagues, Smith continued her “search.”

Theresa Larkin, executive producer for the Artists’ Collective and a Cal State L.A. drama professor, invited Smith to be on a New York panel for international women playwrights in 1989.

“The others on the panel didn’t think Anna had enough status,” Larkin recalls. “Anna was frustrated and almost withdrew from the panel. . . . She was victimized for being a professional who also taught and who hadn’t made the grade. It was the star syndrome. The irony is that she now is a star and has eclipsed everyone on that panel.”

But until “Fires in the Mirror,” Smith’s reputation remained in academic circles, earning her fellowships to the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College and to UCLA’s Center for Afro-American Studies, and making her an associate professor of drama at Stanford. (She has also taught at New York University and Yale.)

At Stanford, Smith conducts a sociological seminar called “Breaking Down Barriers: Beyond Stereotypes of Race and Gender.” Although frequently on the road, Smith is popular with her students and notorious for challenging traditional approaches to subjects. For example, she’s used “The Arsenio Hall Show” as a teaching text, and her students recently re-created Oprah Winfrey’s television interview of Michael Jackson.

But her academic success remains a mixed blessing. “Let’s be frank,” she told TheaterWeek magazine last year. “I get hired because I’m a woman . . . because I’m black.”

And Smith scorns academia’s current fads of multiculturalism and politically correct agendas.

“I hope I’m not part of that movement,” Smith says. “Those words, I swear to God, I just don’t know what they mean. With my own work, I’m just trying to create possibilities for dialogue, to decentralize the race discussion, to try to bring more voices to it that don’t get heard. I believe we haven’t found the language for discussing difference yet, and the only way we find that language is by talking in it--not about it--and talking in it in these moments of crisis, when our anxieties are so big that we can barely speak.”

For this reason, Smith’s performances are often followed by yet another interview, this time with the audience asking questions. Sometimes she is asked a question that haunts her development of “Twilight”: “Could a white male do what you’re doing?”

“That’s a fabulous question!” Smith enthuses. “I would like to see somebody else do my show, somebody from a different race, maybe a Jewish woman or Jewish man. Would it be considered a stereotype? A caricature? Which one of us could get away with more? Is there in fact a kind of license that I have, a kind of permission that I have, because I’m black? This question about who can say what, who can enact which culture, is like ‘The Question.’

“Of course, the big experiment is L.A.: Will people who put up with me doing a Jewish accent in New York get offended about me doing a Korean-American accent, or a Latino accent? I don’t know.”

The Taper, meanwhile, awaits the opening of “Twilight” in the same expectant mood that seized Los Angeles as it awaited last week’s verdicts in the King civil rights trial.

“There’s never been a piece as immediate as this one,” says Gordon Davidson. “Its bookends right this minute are the anniversary of the riots, the sentencing of the two police officers and the beginning of the (Reginald O.) Denny trial.”

And, notes Smith, “I don’t close the coffin on the text until the very last minute. The title refers to the time of day when the unrest happened. And twilight is a limbo time when you can’t tell if it’s light or dark. I’m very well aware that my piece is just a chapter in a story that’s not over yet.”