Past Reviews

Off Broadway Reviews

Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992

Theatre Review by James Wilson - November 1, 2021

Karl Kenzler, Elena Hurst, Wesley T. Jones,
Tiffany Rachelle Stewart, and Francis Jue

Photo by Joan Marcus
Almost exactly twenty-nine years separate the not-guilty verdict of the police officers indicted for brutally beating Rodney King and the guilty verdict of Derek Chauvin, who was charged with the murder of George Floyd. As Signature Theatre's production of Anna Deavere Smith's rethought, revised, and revitalized Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 demonstrates, though, not much has changed in the intervening nearly three decades. The social fabric of the United States remains frayed, ragged, and is perhaps a little more threadbare. Sadly, as current news reports reveal that many state legislators are limiting education-based discussions of racism and critical race theory altogether, the situation seems even more dire.

Yet, Smith's play, which is based on 320 interviews she conducted following the Los Angeles riots in 1992, is not without its glimmers of hope. The title, in fact, takes its name from an organizer and gang member, Twilight Bey, who metaphorically aligns himself with the time of day in which the "sun is stuck between night and day," or, as he defines it, "limbo." True humanity, Bey says, involves moving from the darkness into light, which represents "knowledge and the wisdom/ of the world and understanding others." The panoply of voices included in Twilight offers an opportunity for listening and learning that might indeed ultimately lead to enlightenment.

Twilight originally appeared Off-Broadway at the Public Theater in spring 1994 and moved to Broadway for a ten-week run. In that iteration, Smith performed the piece solo, skillfully portraying 25 separate people. As the current playwright-in-residence at Signature, Smith has revisited some of her past work. Two years ago, the company produced a thrilling Fires in the Mirror with an unforgettable turn by Michael Benjamin Washington, who, like Smith before him, rendered it as a one-person play.

The current version of Twilight has been reconceived as an ensemble piece. With fluid and impeccable direction by Taibi Magar, five actors share the responsibilities, and each assumes numerous roles. Notably, all of the performers display moments of bravura acting as they depict an array of Angelenos representing various races, ethnicities, genders, and classes. (Kudos to Dawn-Elin Fraser, the dialect coach, who helped the cast deepen their characterizations without relying on vocal stereotypes.)

Among her various characters, for instance, Tiffany Rachelle Stewart offers a nail-biting account of a pregnant woman hit by a stray bullet. She is also priceless as a juror trying to keep her easily distracted colleagues on track in the Rodney King federal trial.

Francis Jue is a regal Jessye Norman, who describes the potency of Black music, and he also movingly plays a Korean-American store owner shot "execution-style" but who miraculously survives. Karl Kenzler is saddled with several unsympathetic parts, especially Chief of Police Daryl Gates and Ted Briseno, one of the officers accused of beating Rodney King. He is endearing, however, as a daffy and optimistic Reginald Denny, who cannot quite believe the outpouring of attention he has received after his near-death experience at the hands of a group of marauders.

As a clueless socialite and author who found refuge in the posh Beverly Hills Hotel during the period of unrest, Elena Hurst is hilarious. She is also excellent offering a range of Latinx perspectives on the King beating and subsequent riots. Wesley T. Jones adroitly shows the complex and varied responses from the African American communities, including as a remorseless co-assailant of Reginald Denny, an attorney for the Korean shop owner who shot teenager Latasha Harlins, and Twilight Bey, the reflective gang member.

Karl Kenzler, Wesley T. Jones, Tiffany Rachelle Stewart,
Francis Jue, and Elena Hurst

Photo by Joan Marcus
The actors are well supported by the minimalist design elements, which keep the focus on the stories and the people. Riccardo Hernández's scenic design consists of a raised platform with moveable benches and some furniture. Linda Cho's modest costumes (with the exception of the breathtaking Jessye Norman frock) immediately indicate an individual's identity by a change of shirt, shoes, or shawl. Alan C. Edwards's lighting and Darron L. West's sound effectively convey the shifting scenes set in restaurants, on the streets, and in various offices. Only David Bengali's projections, which provide context for the monologues and large-screen videos that document the awful brutality of 1991 and 1992, are grounded in absolute realism.

Smith has done notable work revising the text, shifting monologues, and introducing a recent interview. Actually, the play seems sharper and tighter than I recall of the original. Arguably, the play may lose the inherent virtuosity that is achieved with the panoramic portrayal by a single, masterful performer, but much has been gained in delegating the responsibilities. A highlight of the production, for example, is a new section entitled "A Dinner Party That Never Happened." The scene splices together segments from several different interviews/ monologues. Sitting around a table, drinking wine, and dining together, the subjects talk to each other. Smith and company suggest that the act of gathering socially, engaging with one another, and weighing one's perception with another's is the only way to mend what has been ripped apart. In the end, this seems to be the surest way out of limbo and into the light.

Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992
Signature Theatre
Through November 14, 2021
Irene Diamond Stage at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Tickets and current Performance Schedule: