When two black women stood up and left in the middle of the first act of “Twilight: Los Angeles 1992,” Anna Deavere Smith’s fascinating work of documentary theater about the Rodney King race riots, I entertained the possibility that they truly had somewhere to be.
Then another pair of black women walked out. Most of the audience waited till intermission to escape: At the start of the second act, only five or six people remained in the audience who weren’t obviously associated with the play. The audience wrote their own review, it seems, and they weren’t very kind.
What went wrong?
Nine actors portrayed almost 40 characters in a series of loosely connected monologues, directed by Michaela Johnson ’17 and playing tonight at the Underbrook. Each monologue addressed race, violence, identity, family and politics, and each person is introduced by name, occupation and ethnicity. Actors were largely cast against their ethnicity and gender. A black man played a white woman, a white woman played a black woman, a black woman played a Korean man, and so on.
These casting choices are undeniably distracting. Of course, that is the point: to challenge our expectations of what bodies should play what roles. But it also feels like the wrong point. Isn’t the lesson of 1992 — and of 2015 — that race still overwhelmingly matters? That we need to let people speak for themselves, if we’re to understand their point of view?
And besides, the accents! White characters sounded like Southerners, or Brooklynites. One Latino character sounded Irish, while another veered into Eastern European mixed with Britishized Indian English. Korean accents were just as variable. I don’t think there’s any way of getting around it: The ethnic accents will be offensive to most people’s taste.
The brilliant conceit of the original production was that Anna Deavere Smith played all the parts. In the absence of an obvious plot, some of the drama must have resided in watching the virtuosity of Smith’s instantaneous character switches. And besides being a masterful actress, she had intimate knowledge of each character, having personally conducted the interviews that became the basis for the play’s monologues.
Johnson’s production does not compensate for the plotlessness. The show wanders, then drags. It lasts two and a half hours, and the bizarre second act dissipates whatever momentum the first builds.
Admittedly, the monologue-interview format is hard to pull off, since it presents the vexed task of sounding off-the-cuff without coming across as aimless. In their attempt to mime spontaneity, the actors wind up talking too fast, and still the monologues often fail to hold attention, or they hold it for the wrong reasons.
The cast is talented, and enthusiastically took up on the unenviable job of constantly switching roles. But too many characterizations were off-base or half-baked. Hershel Holiday ’18 provided a galvanizing bit of comic relief as Elaine Young, but at the price of turning a complex character into a ditz. Maxine Dillon ’17, too, is a compelling performer, but spoke each character’s lines in the same register. I was especially dismayed to watch Congresswoman Maxine Waters, a great orator, played like a narcotized Mariah Carey, breathy and incoherent.
Sensitive subjects shouldn’t be avoided in theater at Yale. Race still forms a deep and contentious rift in American life, and it’s admirable for this group of students to have confronted it. But to the extent that theater seeks to bring people together in conversation, it shouldn’t alienate people to the point of walking out. Johnson, in an email, wrote of the play that “in light of the atrocities of the past year, our team believes it is urgent.” She put on an earnest, bold, deeply flawed play — which seems far more worthwhile than shying away from the challenge altogether.