It’s Director Malinda L. Beckham’s voice we hear on the screen prior to the opening of Dirt Dog Theatre Co’s production of Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, Anne Deveare Smith’s docu-play about the victims and participants of the LA riots. Welcome to this important piece of cinematic theater, Beckham says greeting us.
I’ll admit to rolling my eyes a bit. Oh really, is this what we call watching plays on our computer screens now? How cute.
Woe is me of little faith. If could go back and slap that snark from my mind, I most certainly would.
What I didn’t know, and frankly wasn’t prepared for, was that this was not the typical filmed play that pandemic circumstances have put on our plate these long last several months. This production is an entirely new beast altogether. And it's a gorgeous beast at that!
Seamlessly mixing news footage, monologue, graphic titles, moody fades, stylistic shots, robust sound, and a variety of elegantly simple yet evocative set design and costume ideas, Twilight mashes theater and film mediums to deliver a show that’s as satisfying to watch onscreen as it would have been seeing it live in the theater.
To be fair, Twilight has had the film treatment before. Smith herself (who also starred in the show playing all the characters – more on that later) filmed her award-winning show for a 2001 PBS special, utilizing a mixture of many of the same film/theater methods that Dirt Dogs was obviously inspired to use.
But while Smith’s effort had a plucky theater-ness to it, this Twilight feels more stripped down. Simplified and slicker in some ways. Rehearsed on Zoom and filmed following social distant protocols, it's not a surprise the show feels smaller. But make no mistake, in this case, small doesn't equal less impact or emotion.
And small certainly doesn’t describe the cast – 25 actors playing 25 plus roles in total in this production. A big change from the one-woman show Smith created from culled interviews she conducted with individuals affected by and involved with the riots that followed the acquittal of four police officers involved in the brutal beating of Rodney King in 1991.
Beckham says she saw the play as an opportunity to allow Houston’s diverse talent to shine, and shine they do. I eventually stopped writing down notes praising any one actor’s efforts and instead just sat back at marveled at how performer after performer brought power to their character’s often complicated testimony.
Smith's writing doesn't shy away from the class, race, and financial issues that color each of her character's interpretation of events. Nor does she tell the story from one angle. For two hours, we meet the police, politicians, media, community activists, rioters, store owners, and residents in LA at the time. They are black, white, Hispanic, and Korean. They are male and female, they are young and old. They all have biases born from having and not having. And they're fascinating, even when it pains us to hear what they have to say.
Does it need to be noted, that in our present time of racial injustice and reckoning, Twilight resonates close to the bone? That it feels at times not like a docu-play from 30 years ago, but rather a window onto the now?
Excellent work is timeless, and Smith’s play feels as trenchant as ever – even if we wish it didn’t on many levels. Dirt Dogs’ production may be a deconstruction and expansion of the way Smith originally intended her work to be performed, but it's no less gut-punching.
In this case of this gorgeously presented, directed, and performed show, less is more, and more equals more.
Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 continues through November 21. For tickets visit.dirtdogstheatre.org. Tickets are pay what you can.
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