One Woman Takes On a City’s Voices : THE REACTION : Those Touched by L.A.’s Unrest See Themselves in Smith’s Play at Taper


For “Maria,” the 29-year-old former postal worker who served as Juror No. 7 in the Rodney G. King federal civil rights trial, watching actress Anna Deavere Smith portray a range of people whose lives were touched by the L.A. riots in “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992” at the Mark Taper Forum was an opportunity to experience the riots for the first time.

Although most of Los Angeles has lived every detail of the spring 1992 riots and their aftermath through news coverage or personal experience, Maria, an Orange County resident, was selected for the jury because she had virtually ignored the events. Smith’s 11th-hour decision to include Maria in “Twilight” brought the young woman to the theater for a special invitation preview--and opened her eyes.

“I was so touched by the whole play, and that video was amazing--it really told (the story). I said to myself, dang, Maria, your eyes were really closed. Where were you?”

Maria was among many audience members who watched Smith portray them on Sunday night at the Taper; other guests that night included Rodney G. King’s aunt and frequent spokeswoman, Angela King, attorney W. Harland Braun (counsel for defendant Theodore Briseno), as well as Johnny C. Cochran, attorney to Reginald O. Denny, who said his client was invited to the opening night performance but could not make it. Former Police Chief Daryl Gates, who also was interviewed by Smith and depicted in the show, did not attend and declined to comment about the performance.


U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) and Stanley K. Sheinbaum, former president of the Los Angeles Police Commission, saw themselves portrayed when they attended earlier preview performances--although Waters was eventually cut from the show, which was still being shaped and edited just days before Sunday’s preview.

Maria’s ignorance of events surrounding Rodney G. King led to her selection as a jury member. “I definitely wasn’t following it,” Maria said. “It was very easy--I had a lot of things going on in my life at the time. I don’t like to look at a lot of negative things on TV. I had just gone through a recent trauma with my husband . . . I am widowed. When this Rodney King thing came up . . . I probably flipped the channel.”

Maria couldn’t flip the channel as she watched Smith portray her on stage--but she liked what she saw. Smith decided to include Maria in the show only 10 days before the performance, when a friend of the juror’s who was in a preview audience approached “Twilight” director Emily Mann and suggested that Smith talk to Maria.

Maria, who has appeared on “Donahue” with Juror No. 9, “Fred,” and defendant Stacey Koon, has for the most part shunned publicity until agreeing to be interviewed for “Twilight.” “I thought I would be embarrassed, I didn’t know what to expect,” she said. “But she (Smith) did a wonderful job. I forgot it was me up there. I just enjoyed watching her portray this person, and I laughed when everybody else did.”

Maria also laughed when she saw Smith’s portrayal of Braun. “I really got into Braun, she did Braun really well,” Maria said. “Six weeks of watching him up there as an attorney during the trial, the way he does his glasses, the way he talks--she was so on it.”

Braun was also pleased. “It’s sort of funny watching yourself being portrayed--even during the trial, I didn’t watch myself on TV because it was kind of unnerving. And it was funny to see myself portrayed by a black woman, and she was so convincing!” Braun was equally impressed by Smith’s portrayal of Maria, which he said provided more insight into the tension and interplay of the jury in the civil rights trial than Maria had given during her “Donahue” appearance, as well as Maria’s own influence in pushing for convictions for some of the officers.

“I thought it was very interesting that the turmoil in the jury room indicated that it was a much closer case than it appeared from the outside,” Braun said. “Without (Maria), it could have been a hung jury.”

Angela King said that Smith had wanted to interview Rodney G. King and portray him in the show but that his busy schedule had not permitted it. “I hope she gets a chance to meet him before she does another play,” Angela King said. She added that she would have liked to see Smith portray her nephew, but “not the beating. That was out .”

King was moved by Smith’s portrayal of herself as well. “I was amazed, shocked,” she said in a telephone interview Monday. “When I met her, she was so sweet--I didn’t know she had all of these personalities in her--she seemed like a normal, warm person.

“People will go to see (“Twilight”) and see the reality of it--they will see what happened, and say: ‘Hey, that was wrong,’ ” King continued. She also scoffed at those she spoke to at a party after the preview who complained that the play was not realistic because Smith did not act out any looting or violence. “It was real as far as I was concerned,” King said. “And not because I was one of the characters, but because I saw it. I was there, from the TV coverage, to the courts, to Rodney, to the streets. I was there.”