Thursday, May 2, 2019
May 2, 2019: Rodney King in Context: Anna Deavere Smith’s Dramas
[On April 29th, 1992, civil unrest erupted in Los Angeles after the four officers who had beaten Rodney King on video were acquitted on all charges. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy King himself and other contexts for and representations of the LA riots, leading up to a special weekend post on the narrative of “race riots” itself.]
On two one-woman shows that are just as evocative on the page as on the stage.
In this era of tablets and smartphones (which Word doesn’t identify as a spelling error, just to drive the point home), there’s no reason we have to limit our experience of literary works to written texts. You can watch a YouTube video clip just as easily from just about anywhere, and when it comes to theatrical performances, there’s a lot to be said for doing so, for getting at least a sense of their performative (that one Word underlines, but I’m going to keep it) qualities. So I’d be remiss if I didn’t first link to this opening part of Anna Deavere Smith’s Fires in the Mirror (1991) and this trailer for an adaptation of her Twilight: Los Angeles (1992).
As the first clip’s introduction notes, Smith works in a very unique and compelling way: interviewing hundreds of people in response to a particular historical event (New York’s Crown Heights riot for Fires, the 1992 LA riots for Twilight), and then turning their words and voices into a crowd-sourced document that she performs herself in their various characters (although the above-linked Twilight adaptation uses multiple actors instead). Smith is as talented a performer as she is a writer, and so again there’s much to be said for watching and hearing her take on these voices and stories, as you can do (if you have an hour and some good wifi) with all four parts of the above-linked version of Fires.
But if you’re attempting to engage these literary works without internet access or a high-tech 21st century device? Well, I was introduced to Smith through the published, textual version of Twilight, and I can say with certainty that she makes these voices and characters and communities come to life just as powerfully in that form. Indeed, there’s something to be said for the opportunity to hear them all in our own head, with no performance choices filtering them, distinguishing them from one another, perhaps rendering one or another sympathetic or annoying to our ears. Their subjects are the height of divisive and violent controversies, moments that pitted Americans against Americans in the worst ways—but the texts offer us the chance to hear all sides, and, as Walt put it, “filter them from your self.” Pretty good way to spend some quality reading time if you ask me.
Last King context tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?