The timing of Threshold Repertory Theatre's production of Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, a play about the police beating of Rodney King and subsequent riots in the streets of L.A., cannot be ignored. Stories about police officers injuring or killing African-American men have dominated national news headlines in recent months, and the April police shooting of Walter L. Scott in North Charleston will be fresh in the mind of any local who attends.
Director Brendan Kelly, the Chicago-trained artistic director at Threshold Rep, says he had already selected playwright Anna Deavere Smith's script before the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Mo., made national headlines in August 2014. He says he initially felt some uncertainty about putting the play on in Charleston after watching similar stories unfold in the following months in New York City and Baltimore.
"Chicago-style theater is always a little bit controversial, and that's sort of encouraged. I don't know if that's encouraged so much here," Kelly says. "So I was worried because I was the new artistic director, and I didn't want to run the risk of upsetting too many people. I thought the Walter Scott shooting might have brought it too close to home."
But ultimately, Kelly decided to move forward with the play, even after the national media descended on the Charleston area following Scott's shooting. "I was glad that things didn't go to where people thought they might with the protests. I was glad that everything ended up peaceful here, and it seemed like the police ... came to the correct decision at least. Obviously, the trial hasn't gone on, but at least to investigate and see it through."
He adds, "It's important to me and to everyone at the theater that we don't choose a side or anything. We're not anti-police. We just want to make sure that people are aware and discussing."
The play, which debuted in Los Angeles in 1993, was assembled by Smith from interviews she conducted with witnesses and people who were either involved in or affected by the 1992 riots. The play consists of a series of monologues built entirely from the text of those interviews.
Twilight opens with a series of projected images from the unrest in Los Angeles followed by a monologue from Angela King, Rodney King's aunt, who shares a few personal details about her nephew, including his love for fishing. The subsequent monologues are broad-ranging: Gina Rae, a black community activist. Theodore Briseno, an LAPD officer who admitted to participating in the beating but also testified against his fellow officers in court. Octavio Sandoval, a high school student who participated in looting a furniture store during the riots. Actor Charlton Heston even speaks his mind at one point.
Smith originally performed Twilight as a one-woman show, taking on the broad range of characters herself, but Kelly decided to use a larger cast, with many of the actors taking on multiple roles. The cast, dressed in khaki pants and white shirts, will don accent pieces throughout the play to signify the various characters they portray: high heels, a Pep Boys jacket, five-inch press-on nails. Kelly calls the Charleston cast "the most racially diverse cast I've seen," an important distinction for a production that features the voices of African Americans, whites, Latinos, and Asian Americans.
As in any play, he notes that the actors do not pass judgment on their own characters. "This is what we call verbatim theater. It's an interview. It's not written," Kelly says. "I mean, these are real people that we're just reading what they said, so if you can't find the humanity in that, then I don't know where else you can find it."
Kelly says he gave some of the play's most challenging roles to Kimi Hugli, who starts off as Jay Woong Yahng, a liquor store owner who warily watches African-American customers, fearing they will try to steal from the store. Later, Hugli takes on the role of Chris Oh, a medical student whose stepfather Walter Park was shot during the riots.
"There is a little bit of racism in some of the monologues, especially when you're talking to Gina Rae or to Jay Woong Yahng," Kelly says. "The Koreans and the African Americans were not getting along then. The way the monologues are situated, they're pitted against each other to show that none of this is really that necessary, that it was just kind of a build-up that exploded."
Kelly himself will play the role of an anonymous juror from the King trial, one of the people who voted to acquit the officers who had been filmed beating King on the ground at the conclusion of a high-speed chase. Kelly has previous experience with the role, having performed the juror's monologue at a workshop in college, but he brought in fellow Threshold regular Jay Danner to direct him.
"These jurors, you can think about it any way you want to, but their addresses were given out, their names, everything," Kelly says. "They were harassed from the time when they left the court. There were bottles thrown at them."
Twenty-two years after its first production, Twilight still strikes some raw nerves. Kelly says he knows audience members will draw their own conclusions about the characters, but he only hopes that the play inspires serious thought.
"I think that this play encourages a conversation that not enough people have," Kelly says. "It's that maybe things in this country aren't exactly how we would like to think they are."