12. A nonfiction book: Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 by Anna Deavere Smith
List Progress: 2/30
Trigger warnings for violence, police abuse
So it is very rare that I am able to count a play’s script as “non-fiction”, but Anna Deavere Smith is a playwright who works very hard to earn that categorization. In 1992, Smith and her team went to Los Angeles and conducted dozens upon dozens of interviews with people from all walks of life. The topic: the beating of Rodney King by the Los Angeles Police Department, the trial that followed, and the riots that took the city by storm when the police involved were acquitted in 1992. She spoke with politicians, gang members, store owners, beating victims, community organizers, cops, lawyers, even jurors from the trial who remain anonymous. And in 1994, she put together a one woman show where she performs selections from these interviews, word for word, as monologues, playing each “character” in turn herself. Between Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, and her earlier play Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities, she pretty much single-handedly created the genre of “verbatim theater”, plays that use the exact transcripts of interviews and events as scripts. (The Laramie Project is a well-known example of this genre.)
The play is regarded as a masterpiece of theater, and I fully intended to watch the filmed version that was produced in 2000. But what does it mean to read a nonfiction play that is so heavily built around the performance of one person?…Well, it means that you’re reading a collection of interviews, but very well-curated and arranged interviews. Interviews specifically conducted and selected to try and capture the broadest, most comprehensive look at a city that had just come out of hell. (The LA Riots resulted in 53 deaths, 2.383 injuries, 3,600 fires and 1,100 buildings destroyed over the course of six days.)
I will say, this is a play that requires a fair amount of outside knowledge; there were a few points where I looked up the history in order to give needed context. The play does not hold your hand, but for a piece that was performed in LA itself in 1993, and toured soon after the riots had been national news, it didn’t need it. Smith was able to assume a huge amount of audience knowledge that simply isn’t there in 2019. But not every piece of art needs to be timeless, and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 cares far more about capturing a specific moment in aching detail.
This is not a fluffy read. You have victims talking about how their lives have changed, people talking about how structural racism has broken their whole communities, officials trying to explain and justify their actions, and everyone else just trying to survive. (One of my favorite pieces is from a firefighter who describes how no firefighters were provided with bullet-proof vests, even though they were in the thick of the riots the entire time.) If you are at all unable to read descriptions of violence, this is not the play for you. But if you want to see a specific moment in US history that contains a lot of sickeningly timeless trends, Smith has you covered. The names and dates have changed, but a lot of Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 is far, far too familiar in 2019.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, but go in cautiously.