By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
Anna Deavere Smith’s “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,” an in-depth exploration of the riot or uprising that rocked L.A. after the Rodney King verdict, has returned to L.A. three decades after its premiere, in a new form.
Based on oral history interviews and originally a solo show by Smith, the reimagined “Twilight” is being performed at the Mark Taper Forum through April 9 by five actors: Hugo Armstrong, Lovensky Jean-Baptiste, Lisa Reneé Pitts, Jeanne Sakata and Sabina Zúñiga Varela.
Sakata was in L.A. when the unrest broke out. “I was actually performing at the Mark Taper Forum in a Shakespeare play, ‘Richard II.’ It’s actually amazing now to remember that the play was cast multiracially, with all the people in power at King Richard’s court cast with Caucasian actors, and all the people who backed Bolingbroke’s rebellion cast with BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) actors — so there were some pretty striking parallels with the racial dynamics of the 1992 uprisings.”
While Sakata did not see the original stage production of “Twilight,” she did see Smith’s performance on PBS in 2000. “Although I know the original stage production had a much wider scope of voices that were included, it is still a remarkable, fascinating, riveting and kaleidoscopic work. And it was still incredibly helpful to watch it again as we rehearsed. I’m still watching it and learning from it in this last week of performance.
“All the actors in this production auditioned for the roles, and we are all incredibly honored that we were cast and that we have had this opportunity to build this production together, as an ensemble. I have immense respect and love for every member of our cast — Lisa, Sabina, Lovensky and Hugo — and I love working together and we all support and inspire each other.”
To prepare for the role, Sakata spoke at length with Dorinne Kondo, an author, playwright, and professor of American studies and ethnicity and anthropology at USC. “She was there as one of our dramaturges, but since she also served in that capacity on the original premiere production of ‘Twilight’ at the Taper 30 years ago, she provided an incredible wealth of insight and perspective on not just the play itself, but its journey and significance over the last 30 years. She was a great support and an invaluable resource for us all.”
The violence was not only in response to the police beating of Rodney King but also long-simmering tensions between the African American and Korean American communities in South Central L.A. Many Korean-owned small businesses were burned to the ground.
“In a Zoom meeting, the whole team was able to listen to Elaine Kim (professor of Asian American studies at UC Berkeley) discuss the play,” Sakata said. “I did not get to speak directly with other Koreans and Korean Americans in the play — Jay Woong Yahng, Richard Kim, Walter and June Park, Chris Oh, Jin Ho Lee, and Young Soon Han — although I was able to find articles online about Richard Kim, and I was able to watch Young Soon Han being interviewed in the wonderful documentary film ‘Sa-I-Gu,’ which features a number of Korean women speaking about their losses and their devastating experiences during the L.A. uprisings.”
Asked about community responses to the play, Sakata responded, “We’ve been getting wonderful and enthusiastic feedback from those who remember those years and how it affected Los Angeles, both collectively and individually, and we have had some great discussions with audience members about issues the play deals with — police brutality, race relations, and so forth.
“It especially means a lot that we have been able to perform the show for high school students, who of course did not experience the uprisings first-hand, but who nevertheless have been affected by these issues in 2023, and who have asked some fantastic questions about both the 1992 uprisings and about how we worked on our roles in the play.”
Sakata is also a playwright known for “Hold These Truths,” a one-man show inspired by the life of Gordon Hirabayashi, who challenged the government’s mistreatment of Japanese Americans during World War II all the way to the Supreme Court. The play has been performed across the country in over 20 regional theater productions. Hirabayashi has been played by Ryun Yu, Joel de la Fuente and Greg Watanabe.
“We have also presented the play in numerous staged readings for many community and educational venues, like the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock, Ark., as well as JACL and university gatherings,” Sakata said.
“After L.A. Theatre Works recorded ‘Hold These Truths’ as an audio play, they also commissioned me to write ‘For Us All,’ a second audio play based on the true story of the Korematsu v. United States coram nobis effort led by a team of young, mostly Asian American attorneys that included Dale Minami, Donald K. Tamaki, Lorraine Bannai and Peter Irons. Both are available for purchase on the LATW website (https://www.latw.org/).”
Regarding future projects, Sakata said, “‘Twilight’ is a challenging and demanding play to perform, and it has taken up all my time recently, so I’m really hoping to get back to work as a playwright after we close this weekend. I do have a few new ideas for plays — AAPI stories that I would love to see onstage.”
The Mark Taper Forum is located at 135 N. Grand Ave. Performance length is 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission. Remaining showtimes: Thursday and Friday, April 6-7, 8 p.m.; Saturday, April 8, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, April 9, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Post-show discussion with cast and creators on April 9.
Tickets: $35-$20. Available online at http://CenterTheatreGroup.org, by calling Audience Services at (213) 628-4400 or in-person at the Center Theatre Group Box Office (at the Ahmanson Theatre). Groups: (213) 972-7231.