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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : Anna Deavere Smith : Finding a Voice for the Cacophony That Is Los Angeles

<i> Steve Proffitt is a producer for Fox News and contributor to American Public Radio's "Marketplace." He interviewed Anna Deavere Smith at the Mark Taper Forum. </i>

One critic calls her the most exciting individual in current American theater. Another complains her work is emotionally unengaging and analytically shallow. She’s been praised as a keen social observer of Los Angeles and condemned as an outsider who has exploited the city’s tragedy. Whatever their opinions, people are talking about Anna Deavere Smith and her one-woman show, “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992.” Her performance about the violence following the verdict in the Rodney G. King-beating trial, completes a five-week run at the Mark Taper next Sunday.

Smith, 42, sprang to prominence last year, with another one-woman show about a racial clash, “Fires in the Mirror.” Shortly after the verdict in the first King-beating trial, the Taper’s artistic director, Gordon Davidson, saw her New York Public Theater production about the conflict between Orthodox Jews and African-Americans in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. He invited Smith to come to Los Angeles and mount a similar effort. “Twilight” is the result of some 175 interviews Smith conducted over a nine-month period with Angelenos whose lives were directly or indirectly touched by the riots.

Smith presents 26 characters--Koreans, African-Americans, Anglos and Latinos. She performs their words verbatim from transcripts of her taped interviews, portraying well-known figures like former LAPD Chief Daryl F. Gates, who complains about being the symbol of police brutality, and ordinary citizens like Elvira Evers, an expectant mother wounded by a gunshot during the violence following the Simi Valley verdict. Smith gives us a human glimpse of truck driver Reginald O. Denny, who describes his early days of recovery after being beaten at the intersection of Florence and Normandie. And she takes us inside the jury room of the federal civil-rights trial as Maria, one of the jurors, gives a humorous and profane accounting of the panel’s deliberations.

Smith, born and raised in Baltimore, calls herself, “a repeater rather than a mimic.” A 1977 graduate of San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre, she got an odd lesson in the politics of race when casting agents said she was too light-skinned to play black characters. She soon started writing plays and teaching; in 1983, she began her series of interview-based performances--she calls this work “On the Road: A Search for American Character.”

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Smith currently teaches drama at Stanford, where she often has her students recreate TV talk shows in the verbatim style she uses in “Twilight.” She is tall and thin, a strict vegetarian whose face speaks of discipline. In conversation backstage at the Taper, Smith is alternately animated and guarded, at once quick to answer and then cautious, careful in crafting a reply.

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Question: Do you remember what you were doing, and how you felt when you heard about the verdict in the original Rodney King-beating trial?

Answer: I was in New York, and I was in rehearsal for the opening of “Fires in the Mirror.” That means that I was in the theater all the time, in a sort of black box. When I got home from rehearsal, there were all these messages on my machine, from friends, telling me what had happened in Los Angeles. My show was set to open, but we closed down--postponed it--just like everybody else. I was actually kind of glad. It made more sense to go to Times Square and see what was happening than to be performing, so that’s exactly what I did.

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It’s hard to say what my emotional reactions were to the verdict. Just that I wasn’t surprised. It was as if the steam had been let out of a high-pressure cooker. You know, I lived here in the late ‘80s, and taught at the University of Southern California, and I thought that it was such a peculiar environment. I think a lot of L.A. is something like USC--this incredible white culture living in the midst of color, and no obvious reaction to it at all. I mean, they have guards at the gate at USC--guards at the gate of a major university! And the guards chase young black boys away--I’ve seen it, chasing 8-year-old boys. And I don’t think that is organic, or natural or good. So I suppose that the verdict did not surprise me.

Q: When you were asked to come to L.A. and make a performance about the city exploding after the verdict, did you have any hesitation?

A: No, I didn’t hesitate, because my other project had been about a similar situation. I was thinking a lot about race and the differences between people, and I wanted to come, to see the city, to know what happened here.

Q: What did you expect to find here, and what surprised you?

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A: I didn’t expect anything. I go in without really knowing. I do what I call a search for discovery of character, which is the stuff you don’t know. So I knew very little about the people I interviewed, and that is part of the relationship I developed with them.

I was, however, nervous about my own ethnocentricity, and I was concerned that I would bring to this process a structure of looking at race as only black and white, and I knew intellectually that I wanted to disrupt that. Because the issues in Los Angeles are really about very complicated interactions.

Q: In putting this project together, what disturbed you the most?

A: What disturbed me and what made me happy at the same time was the degree with which people fall out of language when they try to tell me what happened here two Aprils ago. They don’t have words. On the one hand, you say, what kind of education do these people have that they can’t talk about race? On the other hand, I’m glad that there isn’t a full articulation, because I am distrustful of that. Words can be, as Harold Pinter says, a strategy to cover nakedness. They can get in the way of a full understanding. But there is still something disturbing about otherwise fully educated people who can’t talk about questions of race and the differences between people.

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Q: Was there anything that gave you reason for hope?

A: I think just about everyone who I interviewed for this show said something that gave me a glimmer of hope. And the other thing that gives me hope is that so many people want to come and see this show about race and pain--they could just say, “Who wants to bring that up again. Thank God, it was over in five days--why do we have to go through this again?” Because they do come makes me think that people want to know more--they want to revisit it, think about it and they want to change.

You know, Michael Jackson, the radio host, told me that everything in the world is here. If that’s the case, then Los Angeles really is the racial frontier, and it can lead the way for the rest of the nation. It can turn pain into gold. It only takes opening hearts and relieving the mind of the work.

Q: You held a number of discussions with audiences after your performances. What went on in those forums--what were people saying about where they want the city to go?

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A: The discussions are important, because my goal is to bring people to the theater who normally wouldn’t be in the same room together. It’s using theater to create a kind of community. And in my show, people react differently. Sometimes, some people laugh, and others are offended by that laughter--so it’s obvious that they are in an environment where people have differing points of view.

It’s been lucky here that people don’t really want to talk much about the performance--in New York, people always asked about how I learned lines, or dialects. Here in L.A., people get right down to talking about the city, and their lives--which is great. I see the play as a call, and the audience as part of the response to that call.

We had a very interesting post-play discussion a few weeks ago. There were a lot of younger people in the audience, high-school kids. And it was interesting that these young people tended to be much more hopeful than the older people. That’s a great sign, because one way of looking at the younger generation is that they are kind of hopeless and in despair, but that doesn’t seem to be across-the-board, by any means.

Q: Some people have been critical of this performance, because there is no one in it who seems to have a unifying vision of Los Angeles. Do you think there is anyone in Los Angeles who has that vision?

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A: Have you met anyone who has that vision? When people expect from me this one answer--some single, unifying thing--I feel so bad, because I just don’t think that’s fully intelligent right now.

You see, my work, at least at this moment, isn’t about unifying. A unifying idea is not enough. It’s why I don’t really put my own point of view into the piece, because once you put forward a powerful voice, be it truth or not, it makes the other voices seem smaller. My work is about giving voice to the unheard, and reiterating the voice of the heard in such a way that you question, or re-examine, what is the truth. And we have to be able to tolerate more than one voice.

My main concern is theater, and theater does not reflect or mirror society. It has been stingy and selfish and it has to do better. And the way to make it better, and to make society better, is not to put out one voice that seems to bring us all together, because we are not all together. We are in fragments. Maybe what we can bring to the world is a society that achieves living together in peace in another way. Maybe this is a time to build bridges between multiple communities, rather than trying to come up with some sort of false unity. You know, interesting minds usually do hold more than one idea at a time.

Q: But do you think there is someone--an L.A. messiah if you will--someone who can bring a sense of wholeness to this polyglot community?

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A: I think there are small messiahs, and what we need to do is encourage these people to speak with one another and come out of that meeting with a big picture. We need to get Twilight (a proponent of gang truces) in the same room with (former Los Angeles Times publisher) Otis Chandler.

I wish there were a prophet who could touch the hearts of Angelenos in such a way that they would be less afraid of coming out and touching each other. Our institutions have not facilitated the growth of such a person--one who can speak for more than just himself. Nothing is encouraging the growth of that hybrid flower. And what that tells us is that we must prepare--now--so that in 20 years we do have that flower, an individual who can speak more than one language, for more than one type of person.

Q: The title of your performance--"Twilight"--resonates in a variety of ways. In your show, a character named Twilight talks about that time between the light and dark as being a sort of limbo. Do you see that as a metaphor for this city? Are we in Los Angeles caught between a past we reject and a future we can’t quite grasp?

A: That’s what I’m gathering--that the city is in suspense and in suspension. What’s gonna happen next? And not just in Los Angeles. I think American identity is in a kind of limbo right now.

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To me, twilight also implies something about seeing and what we have to do to see. In twilight we have to look harder to see. The person named Twilight says that he doesn’t think that night and dark are negative, he just thinks they are what comes first. I think that is a gorgeous and hopeful way to look at the dark period we are in now--that this is not negative, it’s what comes first. And Twilight goes on to say that he sees the light as the knowledge and wisdom of the world. But almost implied in that is that knowledge alone is not enough.

If I have a single thing to say to the city of Los Angeles while I am here, it’s what Twilight says--that to be a full human being, I cannot forever dwell in darkness. I cannot forever dwell in the idea of identifying only with those like me and understanding only my kind. That’s the main thing I have to say.


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