A Riot of Personality
The first time I saw Anna Deavere Smith, I realized a new meaning had been given to the term "body politic." She was appearing in Fires in the Mirror, her show about the conflicts between blacks and Jews in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and that area's eruption into violence in 1991; and as she performed, a whole neighborhood seemed to congregate in her. One after another the people stepped in, many of them voicing mistrust, misunderstanding, fear, hatred; and yet these conflicting individuals had been brought together, if not harmonized, by residing in this one woman's flesh. How did she do it? Through a combination of sociological fieldwork and shamanism. First Smith interviews people by the hundreds and edits the material she's elicited. Then she learns to impersonate her subjects--literally to incorporate them--so that she may present them to the audience entirely in their own words, with their own inflections and mannerisms.
A year after the Crown Heights riots, she went to the other side of the country and began a new cycle in this process, developing a show about the police beating of Rodney King and its bloody aftermath. Now we have an expanded version of this play in Twilight: Los Angeles.
Shot on video by the incomparable Maryse Alberti and directed by Marc Levin, Twilight: Los Angeles features documentary footage about the Rodney King beating (including excerpts from the infamous, on-the-scene videotape) and newsreel scenes of the ensuing trial and riots. Another element in the collage is footage shot for this production in 1999, when Smith revisited some of the people she had interviewed. But the main reason for watching Twilight: Los Angeles is to see Smith's performance, which is re-created for the camera on modified stage sets--principally a looter's playground of furniture, cardboard boxes, odds and ends of clothing, ground smoke and flashing red lights. Over the course of eighty-five minutes, Smith populates this set with her portrayals of some thirty people who witnessed or participated in this horrendous civic rupture. The roster of characters is so wide-ranging that I'm tempted to call it comprehensive. About the only interested person who doesn't get to speak--either through Smith or through the documentary footage--is Rodney King himself.
That omission may well be the main point of Twilight: Los Angeles. Out of all these people, the only one to discuss King as a person is his aunt Angela. ("It took three plastic surgeries to get Rodney to look like Rodney again.") For everyone else whom Smith calls up, King is an occasion, an excuse, a justification or (very often) a blank. Why bother to think about a man who's had his head kicked in when you have your own claims of victimhood to assert?
I soon lost count of the self-described victims in Twilight: Los Angeles--although I can tell you that the main body of the picture begins with Smith's portrayal of one of them. Popping her eyes behind huge glasses and speaking in a heavily italicized singsong, Smith becomes Elaine Young, a real-estate agent in Beverly Hills. What is Young's account of the beating of Rodney King, the acquittal of the police officers who stomped him and the subsequent three days of riots? She never quite gets to that. Speaking without benefit of commas, Young concentrates instead on rattling off her résumé, with special emphasis on the cosmetic silicone implants that made her a victim for a year: "I almost died!"
Young serves to represent one extreme of social blindness in Twilight: Los Angeles, as localized in (but not confined to) Beverly Hills. Henry "Keith" Watson might be said to represent the South Central counterpart. To play this very young man, accused of tearing a truck driver from his cab during the riots and beating him half to death, Smith puts on a leather porkpie hat, a zippered jacket and a machine-gun laugh. Gleeful in destruction, her Watson sobers up only when speaking of how the mayhem he inflicted has hurt him: "I've been placed next to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. I mean, that's a lotta pressure, y'unnerstand?"
Between these poles are characters who can see more clearly; and some of their grievances tear the heart. With her hair pulled back in a bun and tears in her eyes, Smith gives us Mrs. Young-Soon Han, who lost her store in the riots. "We are nothing. Nothing," she says, speaking of the Korean merchants who saw their lives go up in smoke, while the police were busy cordoning off Brentwood and Beverly Hills. And then, pulling herself together, she expresses her happiness for the black people who had felt that they, too, were nothing, and who rejoiced when two police officers were at last found guilty of beating Rodney King. "I wish I could be part of their enjoyment," she says.
Here is author Ruben Martinez, who bubbles over with amused scorn when describing the petty, daily victimhood inflicted on Latinos by the police, who bust them for everything right down to jaywalking: "You're, you're, you're, you're, you're, you're--you're just not walking right." And here is Elvira Evers, a cashier by profession, who picked up some stray gunfire after 8,000 federal troops were sent to Los Angeles. She covered her wound with her gown so as not to alarm her children, drove to the hospital and had an emergency caesarean section, giving birth to a daughter born with a bullet lodged in her elbow--all of which she describes not as proof of victimhood but as evidence of having been blessed: "Open your eyes."
A word about the way in which Smith pauses in her portrayal of Elvira Evers, to wipe her hand across the plastic cloth covering a tiny kitchen table: Most of her impersonations are built around one such observed gesture. Smith is stingy with these moments, doling them out to convince you of the authenticity of the scene, but also making sure that this detail, though apparently circumstantial, sums up something about the character. With Elvira Evers, for example, you see both the modesty of her possessions and the care she takes with them. Angela King flips through a magazine while she speaks; you see a woman who has some contact with the world of ideas, and who is controlling her emotions through distraction. Sgt. Charles Duke of the LAPD shows you the correct way to beat someone into submission with the baton and decries the loss of the chokehold, then pauses in his demonstration to sip water and cough; you glimpse a sliver of vulnerability in a man who is damn well defended. As for Mrs. Young-Soon Han, nothing needs to be explained about the way she stutters over the word "incendiary."
I mention these naturalistic details to suggest how thoughtfully Smith constructs her portrayals but also to point out a curious feature of her talent. She is an astonishing mimic without being a transformative actress. By that, I mean that she always looks like Anna Deavere Smith; her wigs and costumes seem only to emphasize her features, not to disguise them, so that you're always aware of the oval face, deep eyes, rounded mouth, robust figure. This characteristic becomes most striking when she impersonates famous people, such as Cornel West, Jessye Norman, Charlton Heston, former LA police chief Daryl Gates. And because she's always revealing herself while she's portraying the character, Smith likes to start a scene broadly, almost caricaturing the subject and sometimes verging on ridicule, from which point she can tone down the performance while letting a deeper emotion come through. To let one example serve for many: She begins her portrayal of Cornel West by emphasizing his peacockery. For her one naturalistic gesture, she has him discuss the riots while enjoying a snifter of brandy. And then, sounding a lower note, she shows him pausing to say, "I don't think whites could bear to feel the sadness of black people."
Shortly after this moment comes an extraordinary segment of Marc Levin's recent documentary footage: a scene of a dinner in someone's home, where the guests at the table include Smith, Daryl Gates, Ruben Martinez, author and scholar Elaine Kim and Paul Parker (a black activist who describes the riots as a "revolution," and who organized a legal defense committee for the men who assaulted truckdriver Reginald Denny). As the conversation becomes heated, Smith intervenes: "Since we're talking," she says, "we should also listen." I can think of no better summary of her art, nor of the social and moral impulses at its core.
And if I were forced to sum up Anna Deavere Smith? I'd call her a clear-eyed, hard-working utopian. That's a tough combination to maintain; witness the recent closing of the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue, which she'd been running at Harvard. Smith had hoped that the listening that goes into her work might be practiced by groups of people who would come together in the theater. Not having witnessed the events she mounted, I can only guess at why they didn't work; but I suppose that other people simply weren't as good as Smith at this kind of thing. But that doesn't mean the attempt was unworthy. As Twilight: Los Angeles so brilliantly demonstrates, listening (like art) is not just an ornament to society. It's the thing itself.
Screening Schedule: Nation readers who receive the Turner Classic Movies channel might want to know that Wednesdays and Thursdays in October will be devoted to a series called "Ideology and the Movies." Each Wednesday, TCM will show purportedly conservative films, selected and introduced by Spencer Warren, a writer for National Review and The American Spectator. On Thursdays are films of the left, selected and introduced by the film critic of The Nation. The leftist roster includes The Battleship Potemkin, Man with a Movie Camera, Grand Illusion, Citizen Kane, The Bicycle Thief and Dr. Strangelove--so obviously, we win.