Anna Deavere Smith is the actress and playwright most people will recognize as Nancy McNally, the national security advisor on “The West Wing” for six years. After three Los Angeles police officers were acquitted in 1992 in savage beating of Rodney King the year before, and after the riots the acquittals triggered that April, Smith interviewed most of the principals surrounding the Rodney King story, which also includes a retelling of the beating of Reginald Denny, the truck driver (see the video below). Fifty-five people were killed in the riots. Six hundred buildings were destroyed.
Smith then transformed the experience into a one-woman show–a play where she gives voice to 37 people connected one way or another to the Rodney King riots: Ted Briseno, one of the police officers accused of beating Rodney King, Shelby Coffey, the editor of the Los Angeles Times at the time, Daryl Gates, the police chief, Cornel West, the Princeton University professor and activist, Reginald Denny, Maxine Waters, the congresswoman, “Maria,” who was juror No. 7 in the Rodney King trial. Rodnety King himself is never heard from. The play was called “Tilight: Los Angeles 1992,” and was nominated for two Tony Awards in 1994.
Anna Deavere Smith, who started in the show, “is the ultimate impressionist,” David Richards wrote in a 1994 Times review. “She does people’s souls.” He went on: “Ms. Smith backs off from no one, even if it means assuming the majesty of the mezzo-soprano Jessye Norman and the oratorical pomp of Senator Bill Bradley, delivering some of her monologues in Korean and Spanish or plunging into the frazzled minds of inarticulate street people who desperately want to be heard. Yet in so much diversity, there is unity. Their perspectives may be wildly different, but all these people in their fashion are struggling to put sense into senselessness and find the justice in what looks like injustice run rabid. By the end, the piece has transcended specifics and become an expression of the eternal search for order in an anarchic world.”
The script director John Sbordine is using for the City Repertory Theatre production will feature at least five actors, and could have up to seven. Plus a dance component.
Here’s Cornel West’s character, for example (the voices are all rendered like verse in the play’s text)
For Black folks our loss
is the loss of the feeling that we
can be whole
in a society that spends so much
time de-humanizing us
The sheer joy of being human
has been truncated
We’ve created certain spaces
where we can take off the mask
and be ourselves.
but they are very circumscribed, and
in the end they are still haunted
by the ghost of white supremacy.
(That was less than 15 years before the election of Barack Obama.) Or Daryl Gates, the police chief, who tries to justify why he was at a fund-raiser while Los Angeles burned:
First of all I don’t think it was a fund raiser.
I don’t think it was a fund raiser at all.
It was a group of
who were in opposition
to proposition F
We’re talking about long-term support.
We’re talking about people who
came out and supported me right from the beginning
of of this controversy.
When people were trying to get me to retire and everything else.
Real strong supporters
of of mine
And they begged me to be there.
And I said I would and this is before we knew the the
uh verdicts were coming in
and I didn’t wanna go.
Naturally, Anna Deavere Smith’s “Twilight” comes to mind with news of the death, untimely it must be said, of Rodney King on June 17 in Los Angeles. He was 47.
The Los Angeles Times featured him in April, to mark the 20th anniversary of the riots. “In 21 years, his name has appeared in the Los Angeles Times on more than 7,000 occasions. Sometimes it’s as himself, Rodney King, the victim of now-fabled LAPD abuse the world got to see, the plaintiff in a civil lawsuit, the hapless guy getting stopped yet again on some speeding or DUI beef, the man on the celebrity rehab show. And sometimes it’s as “Rodney King,” the accidental symbol and the rallying cry on police abuse issues. Some of the biggest institutions in Southern California — the Los Angeles Police Department, the city itself — were changed because of the beating King took in 1991 and the beating the city took in 1992 in the riots that followed the acquittal of the officers charged in his beating. Has the man himself changed?”
One of the questions asked Rodney King in that interview: “Your name is recognized around the country. Some people think it symbolizes a ne’er-do-well. Some people think of it as a civil rights rallying cry. Are you up for that role?”
King’s answer: “You don’t want to let anybody’s expectations down. People look at me like I should have been like Malcolm X or Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks. I should have seen life like that and stay out of trouble, and don’t do this and don’t do that. But it’s hard to live up to some people’s expectations, which [I] wasn’t cut out to be. I didn’t go to school to be “Rodney King” and [be] beat up by cops and thrust into the limelight. It’s taken years to get used to the situation I’m in in life and the weight it holds. One of the cops in the jail [in a later encounter] said: You know what? People are going to know who you are when you’re dead and gone. A hundred years from now, people still going to be talking about you. It’s scary, but at the same time it’s a blessing.”
The Rodney King Beating
The Reginald Denny Beating, Retold:
Rodney King reflects: