We see an idealized America in the opening moments of “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992.” Two black women dance to “Summertime,” a song written for a black soprano by George Gershwin, the white Jewish son of Ukrainian immigrants. White singer Janis Joplin delivers lyrics in a style she learned from black blues musicians Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey.
For the rest of the evening, we see the real America, bitter and optimistic and rage-filled and thoughtful and racially divided – not just between black and white, but along the lines of brown and yellow, too.
On Q Productions is doing Anna Deveare Smith’s one-person show as a piece for 10 chameleonic actors of different ages, both genders and multiple ethnicities, playing people like themselves and unlike themselves. This is the true Rainbow Nation, but the colors don’t groove together toward that mythical pot of gold.
The piece has its roots in three incidents: The savage 1991 beating of Rodney King by white police officers in Los Angeles, the cops’ acquittal in court in 1992 and subsequent riots that caused the deaths of 53 people, 2,000-plus injuries and millions of dollars’ worth of theft and property damage.
Smith used only the words of subjects from interviews she conducted or read to create a tapestry of moods, from the guarded optimism of scholar Cornel West to the misery of an unidentified juror who never imagined how the verdict would be received. (He got a congratulatory letter from the KKK, among other things.)
Some were in seats of power – L.A. police chief Daryl Gates, U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters – and some were powerless, like Korean shopkeeper Walter Park, who took a bullet and lost part of his brain function. Some are matter-of-factly heroic, some buffoonish. Smith proves you can be righteously angry about injustice yet a racist at the same time, like the man who speaks of black oppression in one breath and gleefully reports how many Koreans suffered in the riots.
Directors Corlis Hayes and Eric Paulk were wise distributing roles among these satisfying actors. (I hate to single out anyone, but Lillie Ann Oden has a special triumph in the play’s longest speech, made by a disgusted black juror.)
First, I don’t know who in Charlotte could have done all these roles. Second, setting six performers around a table in Act 2 turns monologues into a kind of dialogue, one where nobody else can “hear” what’s said – a symbol of failed communication before and after the riots. (Speaking of failed communication, someone must turn down sound effects, so the actors are more audible.)
Third, assigning cross-racial and cross-gendered roles has forced these actors to dig deep: Stacey Rose is poignant as Rodney King’s aunt, telling a story about how he used to fish with his hands, yet more affecting as a Korean woman who gave up on the American melting-pot dream after the riots burned through Koreatown.
King never appears, except in photos on two video screens used to project TV footage and identify speakers onstage. He was no saint: On the night he was beaten, he led officers through a high-speed chase to avoid a D.U.I. charge, because he was on parole after a prison term for robbery. He drowned in his swimming pool in June at 47, still battling drink and drugs.
Yet as one character notes, whether Rodney King was a good guy didn’t affect the need for justice to be done or the outrage when it wasn’t. And it’s still touching to see the clip of him giving his famous quote – “Can we all get along?”– in hopes of quelling L.A.’s unrest.
That’s the main question Smith asks in her play. Characters answer yes, no and maybe, and we’re left to decide whether we’ve made much progress, 20 years down the road.