Posted in Theater

Why Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 Remains an Important Play

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Following the L.A. riots of 1992, the acclaimed actor and writer Anna Deavere Smith interviewed about two hundred people for Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. The play premiered on stage in 1993 as a one-woman show performed by Smith herself. It consists of unaltered monologues from her interviewees of multicultural identities, meaning an ensemble of many difficult cultures. The play includes characters of different classes, professions, genders, and races, all of them giving their views on the riots that took place in late April 1992. Smith talked to former gang members, the aunt of Rodney King, a juror in the trial, the former mayor of Los Angeles, and members of the police department. She approached people less connected with the case but still with much to say, like an appliance store owner, a lumber salesman, literary critics and scholars, and a former liquor store owner. In addition, Smith interviewed members of the film and television industry — this is L.A. after all — most notably an anonymous Hollywood agent and a major Hollywood producer named Paula Weinstein (Fearless, Analyze This, Blood Diamond). Although these industry figures offer unabashedly personal viewpoints and the occasional wise insights, they also emphasize the stereotype that Hollywood is a bubble of white privileged creative talent that look at other races as mere outsiders.

Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, was produced in Los Angeles directly following the April 1992 riots, a time when conversations about racial prejudice and social injustice were becoming part of the national norm; however, it was also a time when talent outside the white community, particularly at high levels in the film industry, weren’t playing major roles in the content that was being produced. According to Box Office Mojo, around the time of the L.A. riots, the biggest box office hits in the nation were Basic Instinct, Beethoven, and Wayne’s World — all films directed by and starring Caucasians — with only White Men Can’t Jump as an example of a film about race (although only one of its two stars is African-American) (Box Office Mojo). Look at the highest-grossing films of the year and the only significant film toward the top with a black actor is Sister Act, starring Whoopi Goldberg (Box Office Mojo). Compared to 2017, when acclaimed films like Hidden Figures and Get Out broke box office records, not to mention Moonlight winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards, the entertainment industry in the early 1990s was lacking in its representation of different races, as well as discussions about race and class, and so Smith had to take it upon herself to make a statement with her skills as both an actress and a playwright.

Smith — the creator, writer, and performer of Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 — has played a major role in the theater world, as well as film and television (she appeared in the film adaptation of Rent and was a series regular on the Emmy-winning Showtime series Nurse Jackie), and since she is a Hollywood professional herself, it is surprising that the people she chose to represent the industry in Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, don’t do a better job of looking at other races on equal terms. Being African-American, after all, played a major role for Smith in the writing and performing of her most famous play, as she discusses in the book’s introduction: “My predominant concern about the creation of Twilight was that my own history, which a history of race as a black and white struggle, would make the work narrower than it should be” (Smith xxii). Therefore Smith felt compelled to collaborate with dramaturges of different races, and of course interview a wide variety of individuals for the play to bring her unique vision to life. The interviews of people who work in the entertainment industry reflect a bubble of white privilege, but as Smith says in her introduction, “Few people speak a language about race that is not their own. If more of us could actually speak from another point of view, like speaking another language, we could accelerate the flow of ideas” (Smith xxv). What she suggests here is that no matter what white members of the industry she could have chose to interview, there would always be an element of ignorance shown toward members of other races, and the best she could do was offer a plea for more unity among people with different viewpoints in the years to come.

The members of the Hollywood industry interviewed for the play are not protagonists or antagonists; they are members of a large ensemble giving their opinions on a news-making event that happened in their city. Although these specific individuals aren’t necessarily more flawed than others in the plays, some of their comments point to a larger problem of racial insensitivity. Take the anonymous Hollywood agent for example, who says that while the riots were taking place, “it was business as usual. Basically, you got such-and-so on line one, such-and-so on line two” (Smith 134). He then goes on to talk about the fear on everyone’s faces — white faces of privilege specifically — before mentioning that when he heard the Beverly Center was being burned down, his response was, “It almost doesn’t matter who [is burning it down], it’s irrelevant. Somebody. It’s not us! That was one of the highlights for me” (Smith 137–138). Making matters worse, he even shuts the interview down for a moment to leave the room and take a phone call. Hollywood agents are important figures in the industry that represent the producers, directors, writers, and actors who are telling the stories everyone will go out and see, and his interview reflects supreme ignorance of the L.A. riots and of people of different races, as well as his disrespect to Smith herself. The agent suggests that as long as a different race was at fault for the worst elements of the L.A. riots, that he could sleep easy at night, when really he should be paying attention to the racial divide taking place and point to what can be done to mediate the situation, not make it worse.

The story of the play takes place in six parts — Prologue, The Territory, Here’s a Nobody, War Zone (the longest), Twilight, and Justice — with Smith noticeably featuring the industry professionals in the War Zone segment, strengthening the idea that the creative members in Hollywood operate in a bubble. The first three parts set up the context for the L.A. Riots, many of the interviews reflecting the beating of Rodney King and the ensuing trial, while the second three parts dig deeper into the event, its intentions, and its meaning. The interviews with the Hollywood elite take place in the book’s second half, which for the most part reflects a diverse group of people discussing what was happening in their own lives during the L.A. riots. At this point in the book, Smith stretches outside of people closely involved with Rodney King to get more specific reactions from individuals less directly affected by the event, and therefore the members of the entertainment industry feel comfortable in giving their personal viewpoints that may include utterances of ignorance and racial insensitivity, not feeling the need to shy away from comments that many may deem offensive.

The setting of Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, is unique in that on stage each interview segment required a change in background, costumes, lighting, and more, and something extremely telling about the people who work in Hollywood is that their sets are located in high-rise buildings that look out over everyone else, particularly when it comes to the agent and the producer. The text describes the agent interview’s setting, for example, as “a chic office in an agency in Beverly Hills,” suggesting that this person works in an economically thriving side of town (Smith 134). Smith conducts her interview with famous Hollywood producer Paula Weinstein over the phone, but where she’s located suggests a similar setting to the agent’s: “[Weinstein] is at the Four Seasons Hotel in Chicago. She has been on a movie set all day” (Smith 204). This example makes the case that even when the industry professionals are away from their chic offices that they are still inhabiting fancy hotel rooms high in the air that look out over others in whichever city they’re inhabiting for the necessities of a movie production. As author Jake Mattox discusses about the play, “[The Hollywood agent and producer] demonstrate the problematic knowledges that can take root when different classes and racial groups are separated geographically” (Mattox 228). These people do not work on the same level as most other individuals interviewed, which calls to attention this bubble of white privilege that is so difficult for Hollywood professionals to distance themselves from.

With Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, author Smith is trying to convey the message that we are all more similar than we are different, and even the Hollywood members, despite some of their occasionally questionable character, add to this optimistic reality. Smith went out of her way to interview as diverse and multicultural group of Los Angeles inhabitants that she could. In return we get to see many different points of view on the riots, but also the desire for people of different races and classes to be more connected and not feel pulled away from one another. Although there is a tendency for the Hollywood members to put themselves on a pedestal, Smith manages to get a more thoughtful perspective on the riots from producer Weinstein, although she does still take the Hollywood agent’s view on different races as the other. At one point Weinstein says, “it was as if nothing, no connection, had been made [with them] […] It was a fake euphoria we all felt” (Smith 212). Weinstein at least made an effort at the time to bring attention to the various tensions between races and classes, but she also demonstrates her white privilege by suggesting feeling a euphoria for doing good for members of other races not throughout her years in the industry but for merely a few select days following the riots.

The language is particularly fascinating in Smith’s play because she lets the interviewees speak for themselves by including only their words, unaltered and unedited, without putting any of her own analysis or meaning to what they say, but the problem with the language is that Smith is then forced to include both the intelligent comments and the ignorance of other races uttered when it comes to the Hollywood professionals featured in the text. Smith’s creative presence in the project comes in the order that the interviews are printed, and of course in the decision to bring some of these moments to life on stage by inhabiting each and every character she performs. The use of language makes it so that the members interviewed from the Hollywood community have no one to blame for how they’re represented than the individuals themselves, Smith not at fault for how anyone looks or comes across because she’s merely using the words they said to her in the moment. It is for this reason that the agent likely asked his or her name to be deleted from the play and be designated at anonymous so that the occasionally offensive comments wouldn’t ultimately damage his or her career.

Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, is an important and incendiary play that allows readers and theatergoers to understand the thinking that different cultures took toward the L.A. riots, and although the interviewed members of the Hollywood community display the occasional lack of empathy toward the traumatic event and tend to deem members of other races as outsiders, their thoughts add additional insight into the kinds of fears and questions people at the time were feeling all over Los Angeles. Smith took a giant risk telling this story the way she did, but she was ultimately successful, not only as an ambitious artist in both writing and performing, but also as a member of a community who wants to see people come together and not grow distant from one another.

Works Cited

“1992 Domestic Grosses.” Box Office Mojo, www.boxofficemojo.com/yearly/chart/?yr=1992. Web. 3 March 2017.

Mattox, Jake. “All You Needed Was Godzilla Behind Them: Situating Racial Knowledge and Teaching Anna Deavere Smith’s Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992.” KALFOU, Vol. 1, Issue 2, 2014, 221–231.

“May 1–3, 1992.” Box Office Mojo, www.boxofficemojo.com/weekend/chart/?yr=1992&wknd=18. Web. 3 March 2017.

Smith, Anna Deavere. Twilight, Los Angeles, 1992. First Anchor Books Edition: New York, 1994. Print.

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