In the spring of 1992, Los Angeles became the epicenter of a social upheaval.
After a largely white jury acquitted four Los Angeles police officers in the brutal beating of Rodney King, riots spread through the city like a brush fire. The city's reaction to the acquittals, in all its violence and complexity, revealed many of the long-festering injustices that have plagued America's urban centers for much of the last century.
Before the smoke from the riots had cleared, playwright and actress Anna Deavere Smith went out into the field with a mission. She had been commissioned, by the trailblazing Mark Taper Forum, to research, write and perform a play about the beating, the verdict, the riots and their aftermath.
What she pieced together was "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992," a groundbreaking piece of documentary theater that allowed the victims and witnesses of the Los Angeles riots to speak loudly and passionately for themselves. The Subversive Theatre Collective's production of the play, starring Victoria Perez and directed by Virginia Brannon, opened at the Manny Fried Playhouse on Friday.
In the tradition of oral historian Studs Terkel, Smith spent countless hours interviewing a huge variety of subjects, ranging from the former mayor of Los Angeles to a Korean shop owner who had lost her faith in the American dream, from the livid black congresswoman Maxine Waters to an optimistic white truck driver named Reginald Denny.
The stunning breadth, variety and balance of viewpoints Smith uncovered gives "Twilight" an incredible staying power that brings the riots into disturbingly sharp focus. Though Smith's work only scratches the surface of the complex issues of race, class and justice that motivated the 1992 riots, her play comes closer than any television news report to revealing something resembling the truth.
And that truth can only sing with the voice of a talented performer, which Subversive is fortunate to have found in Perez.
Though stifled early on by some enunciation issues and an ongoing series of roving accents, Perez turns in a generally solid, moving performance that makes pit stops at every imaginable spot on the emotional spectrum. Her angry characters, like the fuming Rudy Salas Sr. or the worked-up race warrior Paul Parker, are neither overwrought nor underbaked. Her middle-of-the-road characters, like Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti or former Los Angeles Police Commission President Stanley Sheinbaum, have a touch of caricature about them but make their points nonetheless.
Perez shines brightly in her portrayals of Congresswoman Maxine Waters and Denny, the white truck driver who was pulled from his cab and beaten at an intersection in South Central Los Angeles.
Brian Milbrand and Holly Johnson's video segments serve to augment the narrative by showing audiences the very source material that fomented the riots. It's as cringe-inducing and uncomfortable as ever to watch the Rodney King and Reginald Denny beatings, but their inclusion communicates a harsh and urgent sense of reality that serves to strengthen the play's visceral impact.
With the reflective power of distance, we can only now begin to gauge the complexities behind those riots, the 53 lives lost, the countless buildings burned and the irreparable damage done to a city already deeply entrenched in racial, ethnic and socioeconomic strife.
Thanks to Subversive, and to Perez, Brannon, Milbrand and Johnson, Buffalo now has a chance to look into the heart of an uprising that's not entirely inapplicable to its own identity and struggles.
"Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992"
Review: 3 1/2 stars (out of four)
Drama presented through Sept. 26 by Subversive Theatre Collective in the Manny Fried Playhouse, 255 Great Arrow Ave. For more information, call 408-0499 or visit www.subversivetheatre.org.