Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 at the Gate Theatre
In March 1992, African-American taxi driver Rodney King was savagely beaten following a car chase in LA by a group of police officers. The incident was filmed by a stander-by and the tape handed to a television news channel, after the police expressed no interest in the footage. The clip became a sensation, sparking rage at the excessive and unnecessary violence employed by the officers. Two weeks after the beating, black teen Latasha Harlins was shot dead in a convenience store by the South Korean owner, who believed the girl had attempted to shoplift. The initial acquittal of the officers in the King case and the light sentence given to the shopkeeper (a $500 fine) outraged citizens, and six days of violent riots ensued.
Actress Anna Deavere Smith immediately began to interview some of the main people involved in the two incidents, and dozens of others connected to the events. Her vast research led to the verbatim theatre piece Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, first performed in 1993, in which she pieces together a selection of testimonies by impersonating each interviewee herself. Fast forward 25 years, and the play is revived in the UK with a dynamic young actress, Nina Bowers, taking on the challenge of relating facts and quoting real dialogues in a theatrical context.
The accounts do gain dramatic force as the events are fleshed out layer by layer, with Bowers switching characters and laying out a variety of perspectives for the audience to compare and ponder. From African-American activists to Korean shopkeepers and the jurors at the King trail, each story expresses a deep-seated fear and mistrust of the other that makes it difficult to perceive a way out.
The small space of the Gate Theatre is used to great effect, with Bowers mainly occupying the centre of the room as semi-circles of pink chairs surround her, with the lights and sound aiding her in recreating a sense of unrest. A secondary but valuable element of the production is the effort taken to encourage audience members to engage in conversation during the interval. Bowers herself converses with audience members before the show, and during the coffee break she offers hot drinks with thought-provoking quotations written on the cups, aimed to spark debates.
While the production does not reach great emotional depth, it is powerful enough to stir something inside. Presented at this point in time, it may also act as a reminder of the wider historical frame defining ethnic prejudice. The play will no doubt serve as a very effective introduction to a key moment in the history of racial injustice for those unfamiliar with the events narrated.
Photo: Cameron Slater
Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 is at the Gate Theatre from 11th January until 10th February 2018. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.