Gathering: A Note from Anna Deavere Smith

AUG 5, 2022

Anna Deavere Smith

How could such a brutal beating, captured on videotape and replayed all over the world, for a year, be categorized as within bounds of “a reasonable use of force”? And what was a “reasonable use of force” anyway? George Holliday, whose wife was the first in their household to hear Rodney King’s screams, was on their balcony, still coltish with the handling of his recently purchased Sony Video8 Handycam CCD-F77. Shaky, blurred and grainy it was, but the late Holliday’s footage should have gotten a Pulitzer Prize. It revealed, worldwide, that which Americans who lived in police-controlled war zones experienced every day. The rest of the US populace had been suddenly, to use a contemporary term, “woke.”

Twenty-eight years later, a cell phone captured in color, without blur, George Floyd being choked to death. Seventeen-year-old Darnella Frazier received a special citation from the Pulitzer Prize board for “courageously recording the video of George Floyd, a video that spurred protests against police brutality around the world, highlighting the crucial role of citizens in journalists’ quest for truth and justice.” On April 20, 2021, in spite of the power of Frazier’s video, few people took for granted that Derek Michael Chauvin would be declared guilty on three charges, including third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. And he was. Much has happened in America since 1992. And much has not.

In the spring of 1992, the late Gordon Davidson, Artistic Director of the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, was among those in the audience for my play Fires in the Mirror, which I was performing in New York during the days weeks and months following the Los Angeles riots. Fires had a sold-out run throughout the summer and into the beginning of fall. It may not have without the Los Angeles riots having happened. You see, we are only interested in race in “spells.” The wake of the Los Angeles riots was such a spell. It was not immediately apparent to me or to Gordon that the Los Angeles riots should be a source of my next play. By the end of breakfast—at, of all places, the Algonquin in New York—we concluded that I should head west in the fall of ’92 to begin a series of interviews. I flew down from San Francisco on weekends in the ensuing eight months and interviewed about 320 people. By May of 1993, I was on stage in LA performing a solo show based on those 320 interviews.

The dense and diverse histories of Angelenos are operatic in scale. Academic and cultural race fashion at the time was focused on the Black/white paradigm. I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, where the lines of segregation were and still are organized along the Black/white binary. I had taught at USC, yet I had no idea of the diversity to be found in crevices of neighborhoods, in mammoth churches in basements, suburbs I’d never been to, municipal buildings I’d never visited, wealth I’d never seen in Beverly Hills, and elsewhere. I was exposed for the first time to threads and weaves in the ragged tapestry of American identities I couldn’t have imagined. To parse strands of these threads, I invited thought partners (dramaturgs) of four races to join me in emotional, sometimes discordant conversations, always intellectually vigorous, as I wrote the play. Revising Twilight from a solo show to one for the five extraordinary actors performing tonight has been a rich experience. They made present the magnificent language that real people shared with me nearly thirty years ago. I peered anew at the broken, unwoven, never woven threads of America’s tapestry.

Twilight Bey, a former member of the LA Crips gang, after whom I named the play, equates living within the forts and barricades of one’s tribal identity to living in darkness. He concludes:

I can’t forever dwell in darkness.
I can’t forever dwell in the idea,
just identifying with people like me,
and understanding me and mine.

Twilight was talking about a humanizing project, one that reared up for a brief time after the LA riot. In the wake of the riot, calls for “honest conversations about race” were rampant. But we swiftly realized that we could not talk our way into equity and opportunity, we could not talk our way into ending police brutality, we could not talk our way out of institutionalized racism, we could not talk our way out of the increasing wealth gap, we could not talk our way into better schools, better health care, and we could not talk our way into a successful humanizing project.

Where might we house a new humanizing project? Dehumanizing untruths are unbreakable. We learned a long time ago that we can’t pray our way out of the consequences of those untruths. Secular we stand. Academia and the arts have promised to humanize us. But you see that it lacks humility. In the arts, in entertainment and in education, hierarchy, not equity, prevails. And as a result of the pandemic and the awakening after George Floyd’s murder, those institutions are in the midst of an urgent and necessary renovation. So, where might we house a new humanizing project?

Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 asks implicitly if not explicitly, “How shall we gather?” Note, the question is not “How can we come together?” Because coming together suggests agreement, and discord is essential in the humanizing project at the moment because it’s real.

There’s a weaver I interviewed some years ago. She talked about “warp” threads. The warp thread holds the tension while you weave. She would deliberately break the warp thread. Breaking the warp thread was courageous, but the result was magnificently beautiful. Perhaps if we look closely at the breaks, we will find moments of inspiring beauty. And that beauty might call some of us, from out behind our barricades and forts to gather. I don’t expect everyone to gather. Others will guard their forts. And I respect that they may have a reason to do so.

Originally created for Signature Theatre’s production of Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, Fall 2021, Paige Evans Artistic Director.

Related Productions