Since Anna Deavere Smith's Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 is set in a specific place and time, some theatergoers will want to relegate its incidents and attitudes — which surround the Rodney King riots — to history. Black Box Theatre is doing its best to make these stories linger hauntingly in the present (through March 28), and that effort is sometimes pretty impressive.
The playwright conducted 175 interviews in the aftermath of the acquittal of police officers who subdued an intoxicated King and then kicked, stomped, and beat him with batons — all caught on video — after a high-speed chase. Smith initially performed Twilight herself, in her own signature method of morphing from one character to another, deciding in each of her performances which of more than 50 people to present. We never see Rodney King, but we hear from plenty of others familiar with and affected by what happened, from one of the acquitted officers who realizes that his kids will never again look up to him as a hero, to a Chicano man whose memories of beatings by police flare up anew. Robert C. Reynolds and Erick Betancourt bring these men vividly to life.
The 29 actors in this Black Box troupe portray 39 characters, so our attention is drawn less to sustained portrayals and more to the people portrayed. That said, director Rich Morra has done a remarkable job of drawing natural and often emotionally compelling performances from so many performers, a few of whom have had little or no previous acting experience. Standouts include actors who have multiple roles of extremely contrasting personalities. Amos Hamrick plays Charles Lloyd, a black lawyer defending a Korean shopkeeper accused of manslaughter, as well as Twilight Bey, a Crips gang member. The latter negotiates a truce with the rival Bloods, tired of seeing "walking dead" addicts and kids beating up elderly people at bus stops. Hamrick also gives a bravura portrayal of Cornell West, the Princeton scholar, issuing a torrent of related analyses, such as the Western gunfighter roots of black gangster machismo.
Young Ailey Wilder gives a convincing purse-lipped interpretation of a Beverly Hills real estate dealer on an anti-silicon-implant crusade. Then she surprises us by turning into an angry hip-hopper in a hoodie — Henry Watson, one of the four who beat white truck driver Reginald Denny into a coma. Denny, whom Geoff White presents as a gentle man who refuses to hate his assailants, wants to create an upbeat riot memorial room of clippings and mementos, in which "there won't be a color problem."
There are few examples here of blacks speaking about their experiences with racism, since audiences are unfortunately familiar with too many of those stories already. Instead, we get numerous observers who look into the cause of the six days of rioting and its simmering history. For example, the police commissioner (Ken Benoit) is concerned that onlooking policemen were angry to see him speaking with gang leaders to defuse a confrontation. A police instructor (Matt Fraza) says he thinks that excessive use of batons on King was out of resentment about the recent banning of choke holds.