This Is Who We Are #13: Pro Arts Collective's Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992

A daily affirmation of Austin's creativity from the Chronicle archive

Our ability to experience art in person and with others is presently in lockdown, and we don't know when it will return, if ever. Local artists are already adapting to this situation – many sharing art online – which speaks to Austin's driving spirit of creativity. In tribute to that spirit, this series recalls past works that affirm our creative force.

This is who we are.

From February 25, 2005:

Pro Arts Collective's Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992

Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992

State Theatre, through Feb. 27
Running Time: 2 hrs, 30 min.

The blows are sickeningly familiar. You watch the assailants steal up to the prone body on the pavement, watch the wide swings of the baton until it connects, wood on flesh, watch it connect again and again and again, the clubbing growing more and more savage with every swing, and you feel that churning in the pit of your stomach, that revulsion you felt 13 years ago when you first saw this dark, grainy footage of Los Angeles policemen beating a man named Rodney King.

With its production of Anna Deveare Smith's Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, ProArts Collective brings it all rushing back, not just our horror at the sight of this brutality perpetrated by peace officers on an unarmed man, by a gang of whites on a lone black man, but all the confusion, shock, anger, apprehension, and fear over the beating and its aftermath: the trial and acquittal of the officers involved, the riots following the verdict, the looting and burning of South Central L.A., the attacks on Korean merchants, the beating of Reginald Denny, the second trial of the officers. Smith worked to gain a broader perspective on it by interviewing hundreds of people and presenting some of their comments in a theatrical context. The resulting play, with the verbatim remarks of 40 individuals, is partly an oral history, capturing that moment in time, partly a cultural mosaic, in which the words of Latinos, Asians, Anglos, African-Americans, the privileged, the disenfranchised, the powerful, the weak, form a portrait of race relations in America.

To anyone with vivid memories of the time, the spoken passages are as likely to generate visceral responses as the video. It isn't that they're presented in flashy or graphic ways. On the contrary, director Boyd Vance follows the tenor of the text, which is largely thoughtful, considered. Most of the time, the actors deliver the lines in measured, straightforward tones, simply and wisely letting the words do the work for them. Joey Hood's Reginald Denny speaks of his rescue from near-death with a kind of wistful distance, since he can't recall it, but his recounting of it is no less gripping for it. Curtis Polk's Cornel West is calm and contemplative, but his analysis of black/white relations lands with a profound punch. Likewise, Carla Nickerson's Mrs. Young-Soon Han, whose cry for justice is rather restrained yet cuts so deep.

But this isn't just about an event 13 years in the past. That cry for justice has yet to be answered. The term "enemy" comes up here with surprising – and disturbing – frequency as subjects define the conflicts in their world: cops and gangs, blacks and Koreans, Latinos and Anglos. And every time it's spoken – with the asked or unasked question "Which side are you on?" – it echoes our recent election, with its bitter division of the nation into red states and blue states. We are not beyond seeing one another as enemies. Nor have we reached more of a peace on matters of race. When Mark Banks, in the show's most physically powerful moment, furiously kicks over two chairs and a pair of tables over the injustices dealt to blacks, the rage is fresh. This is now. This is the thing we stopped talking about yet again, which we pushed back below the surface, just under the skin, where it lies waiting for the next beating, the next trial, the next injustice, to erupt and start the fires, the looting, the war – because that's what you have when you have an enemy – all over again. As one subject remarks, "It can ignite or burst out at any time."

That's what makes this production important. We didn't learn our lesson the first time we heard about Rodney King and the LAPD and the fires in South Central, so we have to hear it again. We have to hear it again.

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Pro Arts Collective, Boyd Vance, Anna Deavere Smith, Rodney King, Joey Hood, Carla Nickerson, Curtis Polk

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