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Syracuse Stage Presents ‘Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992’
Syracuse Stage continues the 2020/2021 online on-demand season with the stunning documentary drama “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992” by Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-nominated playwright Anna Deavere Smith. “Twilight” will be available as video on demand Feb. 3-14 at syracusestage.org.
Smith created “Twilight” as an interrogation of the events surrounding the brutal beating of a 26-year-old Black man, Rodney King, by officers of the Los Angeles police department on March 3, 1991. The assault was captured on tape—the first of a long line of similarly disturbing videos—and depicted four officers striking King more than 50 times with batons as he lay on the ground. Though charged with assault, the officers were acquitted by a mostly white jury in a trial that had been moved from Los Angeles to the nearby suburb of Simi Valley. News of the acquittal sparked widespread unrest in South Central Los Angeles that left 63 dead and 2,000 injured and caused more than $1 billion in damage.
Based on more than 300 interviews conducted by Smith, the play presents a panoply of 37 characters from the high and mighty to the obscure, from those directly involved to those who were distant observers, from opera star Jessye Norman and former Senator Bill Bradley to liquor store owner Jay Woong Yahng to Rodney King’s aunt Angela King. Each shares perspectives and insights revelatory not only about the events of 1991 and 1992, but strikingly pertinent today. Syracuse Stage Artistic Director Robert Hupp and Associate Artistic Director Kyle Bass selected “Twilight” for inclusion in the reimagined 2020/2021 because of its power to speak to recent events, such as the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
“Although written more than 25 years ago, ‘Twilight’ is a play for right now,” Hupp said. “It is both highly theatrical and anchored in the truth of the moment. It confronts the racial injustice that engulfs our country, and like all good theatre, the performance is a springboard to further engagement, understanding and awareness. By looking back, we look ahead.”
Hupp further explained that to produce “Twilight” for online distribution Stage employed a high degree of technological sophistication, including a three-camera capture and dual green screens to create a visual world close in style to documentary.
Smith conceived of the show as a solo piece. She starred in the world premiere at Los Angeles’s Mark Taper Forum in 1993 and earned Tony Award nominations for Best Play and Best Actress for the 1994 Broadway production, a performance that garnered her a Drama Desk Award for Best Solo Performance. Most people will be familiar with Smith’s acting work from her recurring roles on the popular television series “The West Wing” (National Security Adviser Dr. Nancy McNally) and “Nurse Jackie” (Gloria Akalitus).
Delivering what Hupp calls an “inspiring tour de force performance” for Syracuse Stage is Chicago-based actor Patrese D. McClain. A veteran of multiple Chicago theater productions, McClain has also appeared in the national tour of August Wilson’s “Jitney” and the film “Widows” directed by the acclaimed filmmaker Steve McQueen. Her television work includes “Fargo” and “Chicago Fire.”
McClain said she feels “Twilight” is important now. “There are a lot of lessons we didn’t learn in the ’90s. With this play, we can mine some of those lessons and pass them down to the future.”
Steve H. Broadnax III directs. Broadnax directed the Broadway bound production of “Thoughts of a Colored Man” for Syracuse Stage in the fall of 2019. He will stay on as director when “Thoughts” transfers to Broadway once theaters reopen. His job in delivering “Twilight” to Syracuse Stage audiences involves navigating some very stringent safety guidelines and coordinating some complex technology.
Currently, Syracuse Stage cannot bring actors to the theater to rehearse or perform. The only alternative is to work remotely, through technology, with the actors in their homes. For rehearsal, this meant using Zoom technology with McClain in Chicago, Broadnax in Pennsylvania and designers and support staff tuning in from mostly New York City and Syracuse. The capture of the performance was much more involved.
Stage delivered three cameras, dual green screens, lighting and audio equipment, costumes, wigs and props to McClain’s home. Once in place, McClain performed “Twilight” while the designers and technicians manipulated the equipment remotely. Video designer Kate Freer used the green screens to add images and videos that in the theater would have appeared as projections on the set. Together, the experience for the viewer online will be akin to a documentary or news broadcast. As Freer pointed out, the video capture of the assault on Rodney King was one of the first instances of a citizen journalist impacting the news and in effect becoming the news. A documentary-style approach matches well with the play, she says.
In the end, though, it is the play the matters most for the creative team. Broadnax says that what Smith achieves so well with “Twilight” is empathy, “the act of stepping into the shoes of another person and that can illuminate something about our humanity.”
Stage will partner with various community organizations to present events related to the production of “Twilight.” Among these are a live virtual panel discussion with InterFaith Works of Central New York, “How Do We Heal?,” on Feb. 8, 6:30-8:30 p.m. ET. Other community partnerships include United Way of Central New York’s CNY Equity 12-Week Journey and Lambda Kappa Mu Sorority, Xi Chapter.
To access “Twilight,” patrons need only a valid email address and a device for viewing, such as a desktop, laptop, smart TV or tablet. “Tickets” start at $30 and are available at SyracuseStage.org and through the Box Office (315.443.3275; Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. ET).