Very few theater artists are more identified with solo performance than playwright-actress Anna Deavere Smith, whose track record includes works like “Fires in the Mirror,” “Let Me Down Easy,” and “Notes from the Field.”
Yet Smith says she is delighted that her landmark “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992″ is now in the hands of five other actors — thanks to her own revisions of the play — who will perform it Aug. 28-Sept. 24, produced by Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater in association with New York’s Signature Theatre.
In fact, Smith says, the kind of one-woman show that became her trademark was actually not her aspiration when she began her career as a dramatist-performer. Back then, it was simply a matter of getting her early work onstage as inexpensively as possible.
“I thought, well I really want to keep working on this but I don’t know how to raise money,” she says in a telephone interview. “That’s how it ended up that it was ever one person.”
“My overall goal was to have a troupe of actors who would go around and we would interview people and then perform plays about what was going on in their communities,” Smith adds. “That was the original idea. So I’m excited about turning it back to what it was meant to be in the first place.”
A searing examination of racial injustice, police brutality, and social tumult, “Twilight” was drawn from 320 interviews Smith conducted after the 1992 Los Angeles riots ignited by the acquittal of white police officers who were caught on videotape brutally beating a Black motorist named Rodney King.
As she set about revising “Twilight” for a cast of five during a playwright residency at Signature Theatre — which presented the five-actor version last year — Smith was struck by how vividly the voices of the Los Angeles residents she interviewed all those years ago still leap off its pages. “Every single person certainly deserved their place in a drama,” she remarks.
“People told me amazing things,” says Smith. “Hearing it again, it was so alive.” She adds somberly: “After the murder of George Floyd, it was alive in that way, in terms of its immediate relevance.”
The reconceived “Twilight” is directed by Taibi Magar, who also helmed last year’s Signature production and has previously directed “Macbeth in Stride” and “We Live in Cairo” at the ART. The cast will consist of Tiffany Rachelle Stewart, Francis Jue, Elena Hurst, Wesley T. Jones, and Carl Palmer. (All but Palmer were also in the cast of the New York production.)
Smith says she made a few changes to the script to accommodate the five-member cast, and also sought to amplify the voices of Latino residents of LA by conducting a new interview with author Héctor Tobar, who was a Los Angeles Times reporter at the time Smith was first researching “Twilight.”
“Although I had interviewed several people, I didn’t speak Spanish, so it was very hard to include them,” says Smith. “I wanted to see if I could get another way of talking about that community. The material from Héctor adds new depth to the relationships between, in the show, Blacks, Latinos, and Asian-Americans, but also he brings it up to date. He talks about George Floyd.”
“Twilight” is being presented at a time when the national focus on police killings of Black Americans is far more intense than it was three decades ago. Nonetheless, director Magar says, “We are not past it at all.”
Speaking in a joint interview with Stewart and Jue, Magar says that her production of “Twilight” seeks to “[bear] witness to what happened as a civic community, and the lack of progress. We are doing the work of culture. We are diving deep into what is, diving deep into what was, and diving deep into what could be.”
Stewart says she has wanted to perform in “Twilight” since she was 19 years old. Now 40, she has found the fulfillment of her ambition to be a “really intense” experience. “It makes me shudder, because all these voices in ‘Twilight’ are sharing a lot of pain,” says Stewart. As a biracial woman who knows firsthand about the prevalence of racism, she says, “It costs me something” to perform “Twilight.”
To Jue, who says “I need to do this for my soul,” the many voices we hear sifting through the meaning of a traumatic event in “Twilight” offer a potential picture of “exactly the kind of community we need. Ultimately, I think, the play offers us the door through which we can choose to walk.”
Three decades ago, Smith became renowned for docudramas built on interwoven monologues drawn verbatim from interviews she conducted, with her portraying dozens of characters. “Fires in the Mirror,” which Smith performed at New York’s Public Theater in 1992, is about the riots in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn that took place the previous year. Smith performed “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992″ on Broadway in 1994, a time when the event at the play’s center was very fresh in the national memory.
On March 3, 1991, as four white Los Angeles police officers brutalized King, kicking him, shocking him with a Taser and repeatedly beating him with batons, the scene was captured by a plumber named George Holliday on his new video camera while he stood on the balcony of a nearby apartment building.
Holliday loaned the videotape to a local news station, and a clip of it was quickly seen all over the world. His video was a key component of the subsequent trial of the officers. In April 1992, when three of them were found not guilty and a mistrial was declared in the case of the fourth, days of rioting erupted in Los Angeles. More than 50 people were killed, more than 2,300 were injured, and more than 1,000 properties were damaged.
(King died in 2012 at age 47, accidentally drowning in his backyard swimming pool. Holliday died last year at 61 of complications of COVID-19.)
In the Globe interview, Smith notes that the ubiquity of cellphone cameras is a major difference between King’s beating, which was captured purely by happenstance, and Floyd’s May 25, 2020, murder by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. As Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for about nine minutes, 17-year-old Darnella Frazier recorded the video on her cellphone and then uploaded it to Facebook and Instagram. The video swiftly went viral.
“The cellphone camera became a weapon in the 2000s,” says Smith, adding: “Not even a Hollywood movie would have spent as much time on that one image of Floyd being killed.”
Yet in Smith’s view, it is what is not visible — such as child poverty and a general lack of resources in communities of color — that underpin pervasive social and economic inequities.
“To me, that can’t be captured in eight minutes of violence,” she says. “We focus on police violence, perhaps because it’s the most visible thing to see in one fell swoop. We have these emotional reactions, and we walk around horrified, but it may or may not result in things that are going to make a difference.”
Seeking a broader context for the kind of social tumult that is central to “Twilight,” Smith read the 1968 Kerner Commission report. Commissioned by President Lyndon B. Johnson, the report found that the wave of riots in US cities in the summer of 1967 were triggered by racial injustice, police brutality, and a lack of economic opportunity.
“That report gives a wide view of the causes for unrest in America in the ’60s, and 30 years later, here’s Rodney King,” she remarks. “And then 30 years later, here we are with George Floyd.”
“Now, my theory about these moments is that each time we say it’s unprecedented, and it’s not,” says Smith. “The types of reforms that people start to work on — and some of them have to do with greater opportunity for others, looking at racism, how it plays out, particularly institutionally — the window is very brief with this sort of increased consciousness. That certainly was the case in the ‘90s.
“I don’t know how far-reaching the promises everyone made — I’m most aware of the ones made in culture — I don’t know what a difference it will make when we look back 30 years from now.”
Smith is currently at work on a play about Billie Jean King and one about Ella Fitzgerald, and she remains busy as an actress, appearing this year as a magazine writer on Netflix’s “Inventing Anna,” created and produced by Shonda Rhimes.
But socially conscious theater work remains central to Smith’s identity, and that, in turn, remains inseparable from her longtime role as a teacher. (Smith is a University Professor at New York University and teaches in the Department of Public Policy at the Tisch School of the Arts.)
“My particular interest is: How can theater and other arts organizations be a convening place for civic discussion?” Smith adds. “How can we use art as a way of attracting attention to things that concern us, and therefore have a way of talking together that’s not a call-in radio show? How can we have a substantive conversation with one another?”
At the same time, she wants a conversation within the world of theater to take place about the art form’s approach to performance. Smith originally conceived of her work as a way to foster an “outside-in” approach to performance by young actors, with characterizations and stories drawn from real people and their lived experience, rather than the “inside-out” approach favored by many American actors. That remains her goal.
" ‘Twilight’ and ‘Fires in the Mirror’ really were the outgrowth of me looking differently at acting technique,” she says. “And so I’m happy that, I hope, this has an impact not just in terms of the way people think about race, but also just in terms of what acting is.”
TWILIGHT: LOS ANGELES, 1992
Production by American Repertory Theater in association with Signature Theatre. At Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge. Aug. 28-Sept. 24. Tickets from $25. 617-547-8300, www.AmericanRepertoryTheater.org