L.A. Riots: A Conversation With Anna Deavere Smith
This story is part of a special Neon Tommy series revisiting the upheaval 20 years ago surrounding the Rodney King trial. See more of our anniversary coverage here.
Anna Deavere Smith, the award-winning actor who now stars in Showtime's drama "Nurse Jackie," was already several installments deep in a series of one-woman plays examining the more challenging aspects of American society.
“Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992” drew from more than 300 interviews Smith conducted in the months after the Rodney King riots. She flew to L.A. to meet with key players: Daryl Gates, the disgraced chief of the Los Angeles Police Department; an unnamed white juror in the Simi Valley trial still haunted by what he thought at the time was a just verdict; Reginald Denny, a bystander yanked from his truck by rioters known as the L.A. Four during the upheaval.
Smith talked to former convicts and social activists, scholars and storeowners, police commissioners and King’s own family members. She met with the average resident of L.A. who had seen the city ravaged inside and out. And she did so with the intent to leave personal judgment off of her stage.
In its finished “docudrama” form, “Twilight” was a series of monologues, quotes verbatim from her interview subjects. The critically acclaimed show ran from 1993 to its final performance aired on PBS in 2000. Smith performed in L.A., New York and London among other cities, peddling the docudrama for audiences to mull over.
She understood then the gravity of what had happened in L.A. Today Smith has shifted focus toward exploring the inadequacies of the health care industry in her latest play, “Let Me Down Easy.” But she’s found the issues of racial injustice she encountered while producing “Twilight” still go unsolved.
Neon Tommy: This wasn’t your first treatment of riots in the U.S. (earlier work, "Fires in the Mirror"). What intrigues you about these historical examples?
Anna Deavere Smith: Social justice is a major thing I’m interested in—the disarray that society is in during something like a race riot or afterwards. I went to Rwanda 10 years after the genocide. I’m very interested in what happens as people try to put themselves back together again. I think the media is interested in capturing the explosion while it’s happening, ‘cause that’s dramatic and it gets your attention. But I’m interested in particular because as people try to put the pieces back together, they’re trying to make sense of it, and it gives them what I call a very heightened will to communicate.
I use real words on stage, but nonetheless they have to be dramatic words. You know, the same way a dancer doesn’t walk, I have to have a text that’s on the one hand, real, but on the other hand, dramatic, or it won’t be able to sustain what is required on stage. This is a place where I can get this type of organic talking that I often call singing.
NT: What was your ultimate goal in producing this play? One critic, Robert Brustein for The New Republic, wrote in 1994 that your play “leaves us with a shocking sense of how America’s hopes for racial harmony were left burning in the ashes of south-central L.A,” which sounds very doom and gloom. Did you want to offer hope at all?
ADS: There’s nothing the matter with doom and gloom. I think we rush too rapidly to the idea of hope. But most people who are talking about it are talking about optimism. That’s very different. Cornel West, who’s one of the people who ended up in the ultimate version of the play, distinguishes between hope and optimism by saying optimism kind of goes, “Looks pretty good, everything’s going to be better.” And hope is really about looking at the evidence and going, “Looks really horrible, but I’m going to go beyond the evidence I see to create new possibilities.” It’s contagious. It allows people to engage in heroic actions.
But I think that so often to me, that question of hope is really, “Just let me know it’s going to be ok, so I can go back to the normal way I live.” And at that moment in America, and now—not just because of race but because of many other things that we face—we really need people who are willing to say, “Wow, let me get a real look at this problem, and let me roll up my sleeves and figure out how I can be of service, what I have to sacrifice to try to make this better for a lot of people — not just me.” I think the rush to hope, although it is a very important part of American character, is dangerous.
I can’t tell you how often I speak to people and that question always comes up—“Where’s the hope?” And I understand that about our nature as Americans, but I do think that the real work and real change comes from change agents. It’s urgent that we look at problems carefully.
NT: What did you learn about yourself while interviewing, researching, performing this piece?
ADS: It was a wonderful transformation that I was able to go through in this whole process. I grew up in basically a southern city in many ways—Baltimore, Maryland, where I thought about race as a black and white phenomenon. If someone wasn’t white, then you were just thinking about how to categorize them. Usually they would be considered black in a way.
And so coming to Los Angeles, with this extraordinary array of cultures and ethnicities, and the extent to which they were all a part of that drama—I was able to see race in a much more interesting way than I’d ever looked at it before. So for example, what happened to Korean Americans who were in South Central, I was able to learn more about their community, what their aspirations were, and about their very fraught relationship with blacks. I learned that this story about race is not just black and white, that there were the people in the Latino community, for example, many of whom were deported based on suspicion that they could have been involved [with the riots].
NT: And in handling such emotionally charged issues, how did you go about maintaining a degree of objectivity?
ADS: Most people would say that the work was, if not objective, that there was a sense of fairness just by how broad my net was. You know, I interviewed over 320 people, and I am trained as an actress, which is different than being trained as a journalist. An actress understands that you won’t have anything to act in a character if you judge that character. I knew that if I interviewed someone with questions that sound like I’ve come to conclusions and I don’t leave any room for them to tell me what they want to tell me—not what I need them to tell me—I’m not going to have the material that I need.
So in a way, my objectivity is not some great gift that I have. It comes out of a need to do certain things technically to do my work. I’m also a deeply curious person. That’s a part of my nature.
NT: What still sticks with you about this project? What was the most jarring thing you discovered in the process?
ADS: I don’t know how to answer that question. It’s very hard to answer that notion of the “most.” I will say that when I arrived, it was shocking to me, as it was even for people who saw stuff on TV, to see areas that were literally burned down. That was amazing to me.
It was very emotional everywhere I went. So many people wept while they were talking to me. You know, the white juror in Simi Valley, he wept because he thought he was doing the right thing. He was really working hard to, from his point of view, bring a just verdict. And he had no idea that the verdict he brought would lead to what some people called a social explosion.
I couldn’t even begin an interview without saying, “First of all, what do you call what happened?” Because it was so charged that if I said, “Could you talk to me about the riot?” there would be some people that would say, “It wasn’t a riot; it was a revolution.” But if I were to call it a revolution when I talked to Darryl Gates, he would say, “What are you talking about, the revolution? These were hoodlums.”
So to get my work done, I had to really be prepared to really step back and let the people speak.
And I had to work very quickly, under the pressure of also delivering a play. I worked very, very long hours. I only had one young African American woman, still had braces on her teeth, driving me around in neighborhoods that were very, very dangerous. We went down to Nickerson Gardens. I’ll never forget a guy walking over to us and saying, “What are y’all doing here? You can’t walk around here. You know what, come with me, let me walk you.”
Or Korean American graduate students at UCLA who called me up to say, “We heard about what you’re doing and we just want you to know we think that you’re going to get it wrong.” And then said, “So, we want to help you.”
You say jarring, but I would say there were so many times where it wasn’t so much that I was jarred, but my heart was really opened unexpectedly. For example, those girls took me around their neighborhood to talk to people who would never, ever talk to me, an African American woman. They translated for me.
And also the person who bears the name of the play, Twilight, was a gang member who opened up his world to me. My job is to open my heart to whoever is telling me a story. And so my heart was constantly opened by the generosity of people who wanted me to know quote-unquote, their city. And so you use the word jarring—I wouldn’t use that word. I would say that humanity opened up. It was like a cloud, a storm for me. I feel enormously blessed that I was given that gift from the citizens of Los Angeles.
NT: How involved are you with racial issues like these today?
ADS: My work always has at its core questions about social justice. I don’t want to talk about what my future projects are going to be. I never do that. But even my latest play, “Let Me Down Easy,” looks at healthcare in terms of the inevitable place we’re headed there. We have to do something about this. I think it asks the question, somewhat through race, but somewhat in other ways, how do we create a caring nation? Whether that’s to take care of people of color who don’t have any means, or whether that’s to take care of old people. Do we just throw people away in society?
So I kind of live in that kind of a question and trying to use art as a way to bring attention to problems that often become a political football. My special thing is, find a way to hear more than one side of the story.
NT: At one point, the titular character and gang member Bey Twilight gives his definition of twilight as a kind of limbo, saying light is the “knowledge and the wisdom of the world,” while darkness is “just identifying with people like me and understanding me and mine.” It seems like we have to overcome this to grow as a city and nation—
ADS: Well let me put it to you. You’re at USC now. That young man told me that 20 years ago. How close are you to that? How much is your education delivering that possibility to you?
NT: Well, personally I grew up in something of a bubble in Indiana in a fairly homogenous, white community. I’ve tried to move beyond that to varying degrees of success.
ADS: So it seems to me you keep trying. But my question is a real question. And by the way, it’s coming from the investment that I made at USC at a time when it was so far from where it is now. [Smith taught at USC in the mid-1980s in the School of Theatre.] It was not a good place when I taught there. It was simply not. Period, the end.
And I feel I made a sacrifice, a real professional sacrifice to remain there for as long as I did, which was five years. It was very difficult. And it was an environment that was exceedingly uncharitable to me, and to people of color. I’m not saying anything to you I haven’t said publicly before, or written about. And so I’m pleased that it has gone as far as it has.
But do you feel that it has resources? I really hope it does. My sense is that it does. The only way you’re going to have leadership in the world going forward, is to increase your sense of the other.
NT: Outside of USC, has that progress been evident to you anywhere? Are we doomed to have history repeat itself? If we have a negative verdict in the Trayvon Martin case, for example.
ADS: Well, we don’t know enough, you and I. We should just watch how we talk about that. We don’t know anything yet. We’re both journalists of a sort, so if we’re really interested in more than just talking about it, we either need to get on a plane or we need to do something to keep alert. We need to be as alert as possible, right?
Again, my earlier caution to you, I feel that we jump too quickly to this sort of desire for a good ending. What we should do is get stronger about really taking a hard look at what’s in front of us. So without having done any research, which is dangerous, but based on the kinds of things I hear about our education system, all I can say is, I as an educator, who came from a family of educators, I only know about the possibility there, to try to give to the people the tools that they need to be productive members of society.
And so given the fact that I feel those tools are not being equitably shared, I remain extraordinarily concerned—as concerned as I was 20 years ago when I came to Los Angeles to try and understand how in the world history could be repeating itself—because as you know, in the ‘60s, something similar happened in your city.
NT: So in developing those tools and providing that education, what can we do to have a productive conversation about race?
ADS: I want to caution you about using those words—“productive conversation” or “good conversation.” That was the language 20 years ago. And I think what we’re seeing now is, conversations happen in communities of people who have time and resources to have a conversation. The people who are most vulnerable are the ones who don’t. What your generation can do is change the language and find a way to get to action—productive action.
Reach Deputy News Editor Catherine Green here.