In a year when American race relations are under scrutiny and police violence has promoted demonstrations across the United States, the Threshold Repertory Theatre’s topical production of “Twilight: Los Angeles 1992” powerfully communicates a simple point: This tension is not new.
To fully comprehend “Twilight,” make sure you brush up on the two events, the 1992 Rodney King riots and the death of Latasha Harlins. Written by Anna Deavere Smith, “Twilight,” was initially a one-woman show, starring Smith. The writing is brilliant: Her original Broadway production was nominated for the 1994 Tony Award for Best Play.
The play is entirely made up of a series of interrelated monologues, which Smith took directly from interviews she conducted with the real people depicted. Though the monologues are compelling in both their content and delivery, it is easy to get lost and confused in the scattered dissemination of historical fact and context.
Perspective is key in this collection of monologues. The characters include Rodney King’s aunt, a Korean liquor storeowner whose shop was vandalized, a black community activist, a white police officer and others. Perhaps the production could have benefited from brief character descriptions in the program.
The play interweaves the Rodney King riots, a response to the acquittal of four police officers charged with assault and excessive force against Rodney King, with a lesser known case in Los Angeles that happened just 13 days after King’s arrest was videotaped in 1991, when 15-year-old Latasha Harlins was shot and killed by 51-year-old Korean shop owner, Soon Ja Du.
Du’s light sentencing for killing Harlins is said to be one of the catalysts of the 1992 riots. When a predominately white jury acquitted the officers in King’s case of all four charges, riots broke out the following day, resulting in 53 deaths (10 people were shot dead by police and military forces) and $1 billion in material damages. An estimated 65 percent of the businesses vandalized belonged to Korean Americans.
“Twilight,” runs less than an hour and holds your attention from start to finish. The production is straightforward. The play opens and closes with a video on TV that shows real news clips from the riots coverage. The set is bare and dark. Characters come on and off the stage where they deliver monologues beneath a soft spotlight. While one character speaks, the others stand motionless in the dark. Distractions are minimal.
The entire cast is strong, convincingly delivering their monologues. The play emphasizes simplicity, which clearly influences the actors’ understated performances.
The play delivers a haunting message: these cases are not very different from those in the news today.
Seamus Kirst is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.