The most exciting individual in American theater right now is Anna Deavere Smith. The 42-year-old actor, writer and Stanford University professor has created a new kind of epic theater-herself. Her series of one-person shows, "On the Road: A Search for American Character," has come to an astonishing climax with Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, which she is performing (until July 18) at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. Smith's "Fires in the Mirror," her depiction of the clashes between blacks and Jews in New York's Crown Heights neighborhood, was a finalist for this year's Pulitzer Prize. In her new work, Smith takes on a more complex story, the upheaval in Los Angeles that followed the acquittal last year of four policemen in the beating of Rodney King. What she has accomplished is an American masterpiece.
Taking on the L.A. riots was a daunting challenge. What could Smith possibly give us that hadn't been shown by the massive media coverage? The answer is, the heart and soul of an American tragedy, as expressed by the hearts and souls of the people who were part of it. For "Twilight" Smith interviewed more than 175 people: blacks, whites, Koreans, Latinos, policemen, journalists politicians. She has assembled 26 of them into a two-hour (no intermission) collage-drama-documentary-epic poem-living movie. The "dialogue" is taken verbatim from her taped interviews. The "characters" are real people, but embodied by Smith herself.
This is as close as our culture can come to the impact of Homer, enacting his "Iliad" to a rapt audience in the days when the medium was the person. With her lithe body, lightning-bolt eyes, voice of many colors and some eye-blink costume changes, Smith mutates into a polyglot cross section of social chaos. She becomes Rodney King's gentle aunt Angela, describing how after the beating "Rodney went through three plastic surgeons just to look like Rodney again." Smith's spine stiffens into the military stance of Police Sgt. Charles Duke, explaining how, after community pressure led to the banning of police choke holds on suspects, cops resorted to baton beatings as an "in your face" gesture to the city council. Without caricature, Smith transmits Chief Daryl Gates resentfully expressing his decline from being chosen the Most Popular Republican in L.A. County to becoming "the symbol of police oppression."
You get the feeling that Smith's very fingerprints change as she switches characters. At one point she lapses into Korean, at another Spanish-having learned both expressly for these roles. She portrays a Korean family, the Parks, whose father was shot through the eye as he sat in his car. One of the most amazing characters is Elvira Evers, a Panamanian who tells about being shot while pregnant. At the hospital, doctors deliver her baby girl. "She had the bullet in her elbow," says Elvira, a line made even more shocking by her irrepressible cheerfulness.
Reginald Denny, the white truckdriver whose near-fatal beating was captured on TV, is poignantly portrayed as he describes waking up after a five-day coma, not knowing what had happened until he's visited by Jesse Jackson ("that's the dude I see on TV all the time"). Even more marvelous is Maria, a juror in the second, federal trial of the four policemen, charged with violating King's civil rights. In an emotional and funny narrative, she describes how the jury became a quarrelsome microcosm of the racially torn city until they came together, confessed all their "personal guilts" like "an AA meeting" and reached a verdict that convicted two of the cops.
Amazingly, Smith learned about Maria after she had already played a week of previews. She quickly arranged an interview with the young black juror, who became one of the play's crucial characters. Smith's instant rapport with her subjects is a hallmark of her work. Mrs. Young-Soon Han, who movingly expresses sympathy with blacks even though her store was destroyed, was pleased with Smith's portrayal of her: : She spoke things the way I felt and she used my vocabulary."
Fidelity to her subjects is an article of faith and art to Smith. She rehearses with headphones and as she hears her characters' voices, their gestures come back to her. "One of my concerns," she says, "was to disrupt my own ethnocentricity, the way that deep down in my soul I think about race." To help that process she used director Emily Mann and four "dramaturges"--black, Latino, white and Asian who "all had political agendas. We would have fiery battles about who and what to include."
Time, pacing and her wariness of the overly theatrical led Smith to give up some terrific material, such as a story that the L.A. politician Stanley Sheinbaum told her about going to talk to gang members. "He said the cops were furious," says Smith. "They said, 'How could you go and talk to our enemy?' Stanley said, 'So I went down to police roll call and I said, "F-- you! I'll talk to whoever I like. Why do I have to be on one side?"'" Smith says: "It broke my heart to lose that, because it helps me to make the point of why do I have to be on one side?"
Some local artists protested when Gordon Davidson, artistic director of the Mark Taper, first commissioned Smith for the L.A. project. "They said, 'What, you're bringing this success from New York to tell our story? She doesn't know shit. This punk doesn't belong here'," Smith recalls. "It made me sad and scared the living daylights out of me. But I understood it and I respected it."
Not nice: Smith also understands the feeling by some that she exploits her characters. "I think they should say that, "she answers evenly. "Acting isn't nice. It's giving, but it's also theft. When I ran into Big Mo, a woman rapper I had interviewed for 'Fires in the Mirror,' she said, 'Anna! So you got big! So where's my money?' This led to my adding a paragraph to my release form that says after I make a certain amount of money the people who give me interviews will get money."
The oldest of five children from a middle-class Baltimore family, Smith went to a small women's school (now coed), Beaver College near Philadelphia, which changed her from "a nice Negro girl" to a black woman. She got small parts in TV soap operas, taught at NYU, Carnegie Mellon, Yale and Stanford, which has just made her a tenured professor. She has two small parts in new movies, "Dave" and "Philadelphia," Jonathan Demme's much-anticipated film about a gay lawyer with AIDS. She has new projects coming up with the Alvin Ailey dance company, the Crossroads Theatre and the American Repertory Theatre. She'd like to write something "that isn't just for me."
"My goal is to encourage people to build bridges. Black theater, Asian theater, women's theater, gay theater-that's a real waste. What I'm saying onstage is not the whole story. It's merely a call for people to come and talk about race. My learning is not over, it's just beginning." That's true for many who respond to her call. Rodney King's aunt Angela says that while seeing "Twilight" she "learned about love. I learned about how the riots affected the Koreans. I felt a lot of love for people I couldn't even stand before." That's a lot of power for theater to have. The name of this theater is Anna Deavere Smith.