In 1992, the televised beating of Rodney King followed by the acquittal of four white police officers accused of police brutality sparked six days of violent protests that cost 63 lives and destroyed countless homes and livelihoods in Los Angeles.
The uprising inflicted upwards of $1 billion dollars in property damage as millions of people watched from their living rooms.
More than a quarter of a century later, Rep Stage’s production of “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992” — a documentary-styled oral history of the human collateral damage written by playwright/actress Anna Deavere Smith — sadly feels relevant today.
Smith, who has multiple TV-roles under her belt and currently plays Tina Krissman on ABC’s “For the People,” was nominated for a Tony award and received the 1994 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding One-Person Show for performing “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992” on Broadway.
Recognized as a pioneer in verbatim theater, she has written and performed in several oral histories in signature style since.
The African American playwright wields her pen fairly; “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992” presents diverse perspectives through the honest words of real people told to Smith in hundreds of interviews.
Some — such as Ted Briesno (police officer acquitted of beating King), Daryl Gates (former LAPD Chief), Maxine Walters (Congresswoman) and Bill Bradley (former senator) — are easily recognized and remembered from televised news reports.
Others — such as Rodney King’s aunt, a Beverly Hills real estate agent, a victimized truck driver, a Korean liquor store owner and a mother who drove herself and her unborn baby to the hospital after being shot — offer fresh insight.
All speak in what Smith has described as an unlikely collaboration of “little voices.”
Masterfully directed here by Paige Hernandez, D.C. actress Danielle A. Drakes serves as the conduit connecting the audience to the heart of Smith’s inquiry.
More than a dozen characters are enacted by Drakes across the board; one of her most wrenching moments happens at the end of Act 1, when Elvira Evers calmly describes getting shot in the abdomen and driving herself to the hospital to deliver her wounded baby by C-section. (Jessica Glennis Evers-Jones will turn 27 next month.)
Drakes delivers a stunning performance as she threads authentic testimonies into a powerful poetic narrative.
The Rep Stage creatives are also on pointe.
Lights by Sarah Tundermann illuminate a visually exciting set designed by Debra Kim Sivigny. More than a dozen flat screens suggest a surreal press room to accommodate Tundermann’s lovely projection design in a nod to the role broadcasting played in the riots. The show’s sophisticated sound design is credited to Hope Villanueva.
Several desks, 12 juror chairs and sundry symbolic stage elements occupy the thrust of the stage beneath an upstage catwalk.
Masterfully directed by Hernandez, Drakes owns every nook, cranny and level of the space, leaving a trail of scattered papers and trash in her wake (race relations in this country are, after all, a mess) and arranging the empty jurors’ chairs in a striking composition by play’s end.
U.S., African and Korean flags, unfurled from the catwalk by Drakes in key dramatic moments, create a lovely lasting impression.
“Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992” continues the stated mission of Howard Community College’s resident professional theatre to “tell evocative, engaging stories that reflect the diverse community in which we live.”
Rep Stage producing artistic director Joseph W. Ritsch writes in the program that, in his mind, the riots in Baltimore City after Freddie Gray died in police custody four years ago can easily take LA’s place “with a desperate crying out.”
“The Freddie Gray uprising is still very much a presence in our communities,” he writes. “A Twilight of our own.”
A screen presentation in the Studio Theatre lobby scrolls bullet points about the Rodney King and Freddie Gray riots side-by-side.
Rep Stage, which has a history of producing Helen Hayes award winners, wields the power of showmanship to shine a bright light on universal issues affecting race and class in this mesmerizing production of “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992.”
“Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992” continues through Sunday, March 17, with sign language interpretation on March 10, a free post-show discussion on March 15 and a free pre-show lecture on March 16 in the Studio Theatre of the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center, HCC Campus, 10901 Little Patuxent Pkwy. Admission is $40 general; $35 seniors/military, $15 students and $10 Thursdays. For tickets and additional information, go to repstage.org.