Updated: Oct 13, 2020
★★★★☆ - Delicious
"People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?" asked a tearful Rodney King on May 1, 1992. It was day three of the racially charged Los Angeles riots, sparked by the acquittals of the four Los Angeles Police Department officers who were videotaped beating him after a high speed car chase ended in his arrest. "Can we get along?" King pleaded on national television to the looters who had ransacked much of South Central L.A., leaving fires, death, and destruction in their wake.
Nevada Conservatory Theatre's presentation of "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992" is intimate, organic, and manifestly immediate. That it feels fresh twenty-two years later proves how topical and prescient Anna Deveare Smith's acclaimed 1994 documentary play continues to be, since the deaths of African Americans at the hands of cops and the subsequent protests, rioting, and ambushing of police has become even more of a hotbed issue than before. It seems not much has changed at all save for widespread technology and mobilization through social media. We are divided into tribes, both racial and idealogical, and the tone is more angry and dangerous than ever, about this and other issues that separate us.
Smith was an innovator of verbatim theatre when with an unbiased eye she interviewed over 300 Los Angeles residents, many who were directly affected by or involved in the riots, and thematically pieced together twenty or so of their testimonials in often juxtaposed, often different combinations. She portrayed each person speaking their own words as truthfully and accurately as possible to create a compelling solo show. The diversity of their backgrounds and different perspectives profoundly illuminated the human condition.
With the fluid direction of Christopher V. Edwards, NCT's "Twilight" is big, powerhouse storytelling wrapped in the petite package that is Maythinee Washington, a dynamo actress who creates many believable, multi ethnic and gendered inhabitations of real people through their own words that are by turns explosive and restrained, passionate and humorous, and very natural. Dressed in stagehand black she transforms seamlessly with distinct physicality from one character to the next at the drop of a hat.
She maintains high energy during the 80 minute show and her focus barely falters. She precisely captures the cadences of different dialects as spoken in interviews, "ums" and "uhs" included. In fact, her accents are so authentic that like the people themselves might be in real life, she's sometimes difficult to understand so their stories lose context. But while we may not always get who characters are or what their experiences were in relation to the riots, we intuitively feel their essence.
Most characters come across eloquently as their stream of consciousness words are laid bare. There's the pregnant cashier Elvira who simply and humorously explains how when she got shot in the abdomen the bullet lodged in her unborn baby's elbow, which miraculously saved both their lives, and a heartbroken, anonymous juror who despairs when the Ku Klux Klan invites him into "the fold."
Henry Watson didn't much value human life when he and others dragged Reginald Denny from his truck and beat him nearly to death. He carries his rage on his shoulders while the childlike Denny marvels at the black folk who rescued him and understands the gravity of his situation only when Jesse Jackson visits him in the hospital.
King beating witness Josie Morales talks about the "indelible substance" dreams are made of, and Korean merchants bitterly mourn the loss of their stores and faith in humanity to the opportunistic looters who were probably customers before the melee.
Disgraced LAPD Chief Daryl Gates thoughtlessly attends a fundraiser even though he thinks they've "got a riot blossoming," while rich, shallow realtor Elaine Young holes up in the ritzy Beverly Hills Hotel with other wealthy people to stay safe.
Professor Cornel West talks about the differences between an "overwhelming" black sadness and white sadness which is "linked to the American Dream," and former Black Panther Party leader Elaine Brown addresses young black men with a poetic speech about the errors of militancy asking them to think instead about "what are you going to do for black people."
The show takes place at the Paul Harris Theatre on the UNLV campus, with the audience seated downstage while Washington uses upstage center as a playing space. The acoustics aren't great with this type of presentation, especially when Washington speaks away from us, but Andrew Killion's projections onto a three paneled flat display the names and titles of each character. Depending on where you are seated those aren't always visible, however, but vintage tapes of protestors effectively trigger the memory and help set the mood.
The play isn't really about Rodney King, and it doesn't take sides. Like he said, "I mean, we're all stuck here for awhile. Let's try to work it out."