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Character Study Profile: Anna Deavere Smith looks at where people in America are coming from, but, more importantly, she listens.

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- On a spring day in 1993, Anna Deavere Smith's search for American character took her to a lawyer's office in Los Angeles where she spoke to Reginald Denny, a white trucker beaten unconscious a year before in uprisings following the Rodney King police brutality trial. As usual, she switched on her tape recorder, asked questions, listened. It's remarkable, she says, how it's possible to discover something profound about someone in a short time.

In this case, it happened near the end of the hour-long interview, when Smith asked Denny: "What do you want?"

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"I don't know what I want," he said. "I just want people to wake up. It's not a color, it's a person. One day, Lord willing, it'll happen."

As portrayed by Smith -- the Baltimore-born playwright, actress and Stanford University professor -- Denny and 45 others appear on stage one by one in her one-woman play, "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992," which opens tonight at Ford's Theatre in Washington. Smith would like to think of the play as a wake-up call. Not a solution. She is not in the business of offering solutions. She's more interested in provoking conversation.

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"I don't have the answer," she has said, "I have the shock."

Smith has created a particular brand of theater, a melange of journalism and performance that has won her awards, national acclaim and a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant. For "Twilight" she interviewed about 175 people and chose 46 to tell the story of three days of rioting in Los Angeles in April and May 1992 in which 58 people were killed and more than 2,300 injured.

Rodney King, the motorist who was beaten by four Los Angeles police officers, refused to speak with Smith. But she did talk with his aunt, Angela King.

"I wanted justice," Angela King told her, "and I wanted whatever them things had comin' to them done to them, regardless -- you can call it revenge or whatever, but what I saw on that video, on that TV, that was a mess."

At one point in the show, Smith -- a tall, slender 46-year-old -- somehow becomes, in fairly rapid succession: a real estate TC agent, a student, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, a young black man outraged at the fuss made over the Denny beating ("Oh, Reginald Denny, this innocent white man. But you didn't hear nothin' about all these other victims "), and former Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates.

Smith listens to her tapes repeatedly, until she can reproduce every nuance of speech and gesture. She renders every "um," "you know" and "uhhh." After several performances of "Twilight," she says, she noticed something amiss in her portrayal of Walter Park, a Korean shop owner who was shot through the eye during the riots. She was leaving out several "you knows." It wasn't right. She put them back in. It's not just what people say, she says, it's how they say it.

But why go to this trouble? Why not just videotape the interviews, edit them and show them? What's the difference?

"I guess it has something to do with presence," Smith says. "That part of what the audience is watching is my presence. They're not just watching the characters, they're watching the effort that it takes me to become the characters. And part of what engages them is that.

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"It's like a singer. It's not just about her being at the note, it's listening for her to hit the note of the song that we know so well. And that's part of the theater of it. That's what makes it theater. I'm in the process of becoming something."

Smith, a graduate of Western High School in Baltimore and Beaver College in Pennsylvania, is in the process of becoming a presence in all media. Her previous play, the Obie-award winning "Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities," was broadcast on public television. She has appeared in three movies: "Dave," "Philadelphia," and "The American President." Her insights about her work have been published as introductions to books made of both "Fires" and "Twilight." During the Republican and Democratic conventions last year, she filed reports for Newsweek magazine.

A learning experience

Her foray into conventional journalism was done in the service of her art. For more than a year, she has been researching a show about the American presidency, including the president's relationship with the press. Scheduled to open this fall at Arena Stage in Washington, it will not be a one-person show, and Smith says it's not even clear whether she'll appear in it.

During her brief stint for Newsweek, Smith learned that it's one thing to interview people one-on-one at a leisurely pace for her performances, and quite another to grab quotes on deadline at a convention. She recalls trying to interview Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala at the Democratic convention in Chicago.

"She said, 'Meet me in front of the New York delegation,' " says Smith. "Well, I didn't know what to expect and for the way that I interview it was laughable. It was a billion people coming around with microphones. And so I just gave up on my interview and just watched this thing. And what was stunning to me about it was that she must have talked to 20 people. Every one of them asked the exact same question. And every time she gave an answer with this amazing enthusiasm."

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Beyond words

In that kind of reporting, words convey information, nothing more. What Smith does on stage is something else.

"Words are not an end in themselves," she wrote in the introduction to the published script of "Twilight." "They are a means to evoking the character of the person who spoke them. Every person that I include in the book, and who I perform, has a presence that is much more important than the information they give."

The contrast suggests why the New York Post, in reviewing "Fires in the Mirror," wrote that Smith says more in 90 minutes on stage "than we learned from months of news reports about what really happened in Brooklyn on Aug. 19, 1991."

What happened was that one car in a procession escorting a Hasidic rabbi jumped a curb and struck a 7-year-old black boy, who died of his injuries. Later that night, several young black men stabbed to death a Hasidic scholar.

Notwithstanding the success of "Fires" and "Twilight," Smith did not originally set out to explore American race relations. When she began her travels in the early 1980s, she called the expedition "On the Road: A Search for American Character." Equipped with a tape recorder and a master's degree from the American Conservatory Theater, she set out to explore the link between American language and character.

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Inevitably, her pursuit led to an examination of the American obsession, race. And so she steps for a few moments outside her own identity as a black woman and tries to become the Other. To imagine the world from that point of view.

"Our race dialogue desperately needs this more complex language," Smith has written. "The words of Twilight, the ex-gang member after whom I named the play, addresses this need: ' I cannot forever dwell in darkness. I cannot forever dwell in idea of identifying with those like me and understanding only me and mine.' "

"Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992" runs through Feb. 14 at Ford's Theatre. Tickets cost $24-$36; call (202) 347-4833 for more information.

Pub Date: 1/31/97


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