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From L.A. to Buffalo: Playing out issues of race

On the cavernous third floor of a former automobile factory in North Buffalo, an unassuming little shoebox of a theater sits tucked away behind a plastered-over garage door.

Inside, four creaky rows of old folding seats face a stage sparsely furnished with two chairs, a coat rack and a hanging video screen. It is the set for the Subversive Theatre Collective's production of "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992," a masterpiece of documentary theater that chronicles the riots that erupted in Los Angeles after a jury let four white police officers off the hook in the brutal beating of Rodney King.

The show, starring Victoria Perez as a series of 16 victims and witnesses, is a stunning look back at one of the more shameful moments in recent U.S. history. But it is also directly applicable to Buffalo in 2009, a place where issues of racial discrimination, segregation and poverty are as pressing as they have ever been.

For evidence of that, we don't have to look any further than the case of Brian Milligan, an 18-year-old man who was beaten nearly to death by a group of 10 to 12 teenagers on Buffalo's East Side last month. The suspected reason? Milligan, who is white, is dating a black woman. Neighborhood toughs weren't happy with the interracial relationship, and they expressed that dissatisfaction by bashing Milligan's head with a concrete block.

In the weeks since the assault, passionate discussions about racism, prejudice and socioeconomic inequalities have flared up on the Internet. Online discussions about racial issues, especially those appearing lately on The Buffalo News Web site, tend to activate the deepest hatreds of anonymous lunatics. Their invective often overpowers what scattered voices of reason exist, but the comments still serve to illustrate that Buffalo's racial and socioeconomic picture is far more fractured than most of us like to admit.

Take, for instance, one of a series of comments from someone called "StephenAnderson42" on Rod Watson's recent column urging witnesses to speak up about the incident:

"We (both whites and blacks) would be better off if we were separate," the commenter writes. "We have different and conflicting interests. We don't understand each other, we get into fights, both sides constantly feel slighted by the other. The differences between us are built into our DNA, and cannot be overcome through 'understanding' or spending time getting to know one another."

Taking in a performance of "Twilight" is an antidote to this pernicious way of thinking. By witnessing the racially motivated strife of another city -- from the distance of almost two decades and some 2,500 miles -- we can gain insight into the complexities of our own city's racial disparities and struggles.

As Congresswoman Maxine Waters' character in "Twilight" says, "Los Angeles is but one city experiencing this despair and hopelessness" of racial discrimination and pain. Detroit is another. Milwaukee is another. And Buffalo, the third-poorest major city in the United States and the seventh most segregated, is most definitely another.

"It's an outrage how intensely segregated this city is between east and west," said Subversive founder and artistic director Kurt Schneiderman. "The differences in privilege and differences in culture just hit you in the face all the time. One of the things that's interesting about 'Twilight' is that it is about this very specific moment in American history, but it's really not. It's really about any place that's suffering from racial or social turmoil."

Certainly not all theater speaks to us as directly or with as much insight into our modern predicaments as "Twilight." But sometimes even the most seemingly lighthearted confections offer up lessons that apply directly to our lives and the way we live them, not just in terms of the vaunted "universal experience," but of the specific problems and issues that confront our society on the small scale.

At a time when blockbuster Hollywood films and snazzy musicals with sky-high production values account for the vast majority of American entertainment dollars, it's easy to forget that the performing arts can tell us something directly applicable to our own lives and communities.

It is tempting to think of the theater as a place of escape, a refuge from the mounting pressures and struggles of daily life. It certainly can be. But the art form is at its most powerful when it speaks to us about the world in which we live, and maybe, like "Twilight," points us toward a solution.


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