CAMBRIDGE — An intense curiosity about the lives of other people and what makes your fellow humans tick is a key quality for a writer — perhaps even the key quality, along with talent.
Anna Deavere Smith has both. And then there are her uncanny gifts as a shape-shifting performer who can deliver indelible portraits of multiple characters onstage, segueing deftly from one to another in the blink of an eye.
Subtract Smith the performer from her landmark “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992″ — originally a solo work but now revised by Smith in her other guise, as playwright, to accommodate five actors — and that spectacle of singular virtuosity is inevitably lost.
But what has emphatically not been lost in this reconceived and frequently riveting “Twilight” is the play’s raw power as a living testament to the devastating and far-reaching human cost of systemic racial injustice.
Now at the American Repertory Theater in a taut production directed by Taibi Magar, “Twilight” ranges from the prelude through the tumult and into the aftermath of the 1992 riots that ensued when white Los Angeles police officers were acquitted of the vicious beating of Black motorist Rodney King, even though it was captured on videotape and seen all over the world.
(Smith has added material that brings the police murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement within the scope of her 1993 play.)
“Twilight” is enacted by a first-rate quintet at the Loeb Drama Center — Tiffany Rachelle Stewart, Carl Palmer, Elena Hurst, Francis Jue, and Wesley T. Jones — who perform mostly barefoot, as Smith did. (One of the venues where Smith performed “Twilight” solo was Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company, in 1996, two years after it ran on Broadway.)
The characterizations by the ART cast are not just technically adroit but keenly particularized. That is crucial, because Smith built “Twilight” on the real voices of real people, drawn from hundreds of interviews she conducted and then fashioned into a series of interwoven monologues.
This is a playwright who does not fear complexity or contradiction as she traverses the tricky terrain of race and class; Smith doesn’t ask that we agree with or like all of the people in “Twilight,” only that we listen to them, in all their idiosyncratic variety.
What makes this revised “Twilight” not just a must-see but a must-hear is the sheer vividness of their voices, the stories they tell, and the revealing perspectives that Black, white, Asian-American, and Latino residents of Los Angeles offer as they sift through the meaning of a traumatic event, the social conditions that gave rise to it, and their hopes — some faint, some fierce — for change.
Were it not for Smith’s sharply focused structure, “Twilight” could register as a cacophonous chorus — and indeed it does feel that way at certain points, such as an overlong Act Two scene titled “A dinner party that never happened,” and a similarly protracted scene involving the jury in the 1993 federal trial of the officers on charges of violating King’s civil rights.
But on balance “Twilight” remains an exceptionally impressive achievement in synthesizing dozens of voices and shaping them into an organic whole. Unfolding on Riccardo Hernandez’s spare, low-platformed set at the Loeb, “Twilight” juxtaposes the epic and the intimate, as the individual testimonies of witnesses, participants, and victims are punctuated by footage of the riots. Televised images of burning cars and buildings and people carrying cardboard signs that read “No justice, no peace” are seen on a large upstage screen and on smaller screens positioned on either side of the stage.
Be forewarned: In addition to the riots, “Twilight” features extensive footage of King’s beating as well as the attack on white truck driver Reginald Denny during the riot, and the fatal 1991 shooting of Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old Black girl, by Korean-American convenience store owner Soon Ja Du. (Tension between the Black and Korean-American communities is a recurrent theme in “Twilight.”)
The first voice we hear, in the play’s prologue, is that of Angela King, Rodney King’s aunt, portrayed by Stewart. The actress is also superb in such roles as Elvira Evers, a Black cashier from Panama who was shot during the riots, while she was pregnant; community activist Gina Rae a.k.a. Queen Malkah; and US Representative Maxine Waters, who says at one point: “The fact of the matter is, whether we like it or not, riot is the voice of the unheard.”
Jue is exemplary, as is usually the case with this fine actor. He’s quietly moving as Walter Park, a Korean-American store owner in his early 60s who was shot in the temple, leaving him blind in one eye and struggling with speech. As opera singer Jessye Norman, Jue brings Act One to a close with a monologue that blends passion, poetry, and history.
Jones brings genuine force to his portrayals of Keith Watson, a former Marine who was one of Denny’s assailants, and Paul Parker, chairperson of the Free the L.A. Four Plus Defense Committee. Hurst gives real estate agent Elaine Young a quality of comical self-absorption while lending gravitas to author and former Los Angeles Times reporter Hector Tobar (whom Smith interviewed in 2021, and whose perspective fuses close-ups with the big picture). Palmer transitions adeptly from LA Police Chief Daryl Gates to Reginald Denny to a breezy Hollywood talent agent to one of the police officers accused of beating King.
Over the past three decades, Smith has helped make documentary theater an important part of our contemporary dramatic literature while also paving the way for recent plays about racialized violence such as Antoinette Nwandu’s “Pass Over” and Aleshea Harris’s “What to Send Up When It Goes Down.”
Smith’s work has found a home at the ART several times before. In 1992, she performed “Fires in the Mirror”; then “Let Me Down Easy” in 2008; and, most recently, “Notes From the Field: Doing Time in Education” in 2016.
Now comes this gripping and urgent production of “Twilight.” While she is not present onstage this time, it’s abundantly clear that Smith and her early masterpiece still have plenty to say.
TWILIGHT: LOS ANGELES, 1992
Conceived, written, and revised by Anna Deavere Smith. Directed by Taibi Magar. Production by American Repertory Theater in association with Signature Theatre. At Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge. Through Sept. 24. Tickets from $25. 617-547-8300, www.AmericanRepertoryTheater.org