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UTD Play Requires Actors to Stretch (and Stretch Some More)

Guest blogger Danielle Marie Georgiou is a Dance Lecturer at the University of Texas at Arlington where she serves as the Assistant Director of the UT Arlington’s Dance Ensemble. She is also a member of Muscle Memory Dance Theatre – a modern dance collective.

Last summer, I was asked to be the Assistant Director of the University of Texas at Dallas’ production of Twilight, Los Angeles: 1992. Based on more than 200 interviews conducted and compiled by playwright Anna Deavere Smith, this form of documentary theater exposes and explores the devastating human impact of the Los Angeles riots.

The play focuses on the voices that best reflect the diversity and tension of a city in turmoil: a disabled Korean man, a white male Hollywood talent agent, a Panamanian immigrant mother, a black teenage gang member, Rodney King’s aunt, beaten truck driver Reginald Denny, former Los Angeles police chief Daryl Gates and other witnesses, participants and victims.

One of the most difficult aspects of bringing this play to life was working with the actors to transform them into the more than 20 characters in the play. Our cast of five – four female actors and one male actor – had to become different ethnicities, play their opposite genders, and act out instances that if not done in a semi-self-contained way could be seen as melodramatic.

Chinweolu Greer had the task of portraying Daryl Gates, the former chief of the Los Angeles Police Department; Reginald Denny, who insists that he harbors no bitterness; and Paul Parker, head of the defense committee for Denny’s assailants, who vents his hatred for the white power structure.

Stephanie Ceniza – who makes her acting debut in Twilight – plays Mrs. Young-soon Han, a former liquor store owner who is struggling to figure out why immigrants have been left out of American society. Aside from delving into this dramatic monologue (alongside Greer), Ceniza had to provide moments of comedic relief. There’s the vivacious Katie Miller, a bookkeeper and accountant, who tries to explain the problems between the Blacks and the Koreans. And then there’s the bombastic disco scene.

The cast of Twilight; Photo Credit: Michelle Long

The cast of Twilight; Photo Credit: Michelle Long

Freshman Brittany Ellenberg got into the mind and mouth of Walter Park, a Korean storeowner who was the victim of a gunshot. Ellenberg had to assume the posture of a man who is older – in his 60s – and who has taken a bullet to the left eye. She had to alter her voice and speech patterns to mimic a person who has lost control of his motor skills but wants so much to be heard. Not soon after, she transforms into Maria, Juror No. 7. Recounting what went on behind closed doors, complete with impersonations of her follow jurors, she proves to be a spitfire with a low tolerance for laziness.

Pawankumar Hedge – a computer engineering graduate student – became Elvira Evers, a cashier from Panama who was pregnant and near delivery when struck by a random bullet. This was probably one of the most difficult transformations because not only did Hedge have to become a woman, he had to become a woman who was pregnant and then nearly lost her baby. He had to find the strength and courage to portray a mother and the humility of person who owes her life to fate and an elbow.

Senior Jasmine Johnson closes the show as Twilight Bey, an organizer of the gang truce. She had to transform herself into this poet who was known as a watchdog of the neighborhood. His last words sum up what Los Angeles experience during 1992 and what America is still going through.

The task of becoming these real people was overwhelming, but the actors fully committed themselves to the production. Smith looked at the 1992 riots one person at a time, one idea at a time, and built up this panoramic canvas of a national trauma. It was important to the director, Dr. Venus Opal Reese, the actors and myself that Smith’s vision was seen through. It was also important for us that we brought the tension of L.A. to Dallas.

Chinweolu Greer as Mrs. Park; Photo Credit: Michelle Long

Chinweolu Greer as Mrs. Park; Photo Credit: Michelle Long

To do so, we used actual footage from the Rodney King and Reginald Denny beatings. We used what footage was available of the Latasha Harlins shooting – a 15-year-old girl who was though to be shoplifting and was shot by a Korean grocer. We included explanatory subtitles that give the name and occupation of the people portrayed. We also intermixed music from the time – a little Ice T, Ice Cube and Rage Against the Machine to get your blood moving – with the wail of police sirens and the banging of baton blows.

Twilight, Los Angeles: 1992 gives a new perspective on a historical event that rocked L.A. and the U.S. It transcends the specific incidents and becomes an expression of the eternal search for order and peace in our society.

Twilight, Los Angeles: 1992 runs Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. (curtain at 7:30). Thursday nights are free to everyone. General admission is $10. To purchase tickets, call 972.883.2552.

  • http://artsjournal.com/bookdaddy Jerome Weeks

    I had the pleasure of seeing Anna Deveare Smith perform Twilight, Los Angeles: 1992 on Broadway and what left me tremendously impressed by her characterizations was their relative simplicity.

    That is, it didn’t take all that much for her to shift from one speaker to another — a different posture, a different twang, a new gesture. Smith didn’t make a big show of it; she didn’t pop in and out of costumes or wigs. But her characters were so convincing because she had whittled them down to some dramatic essence — what they said was somehow reflected in the way they said it, and that just seemed to fuse into this new being onstage, she inhabited them. The apparent simplicity was part of that illusion, all the real work, the real thinking, had been done before she ever stepped onstage. I still can vividly recall the powerful effect Smith had when (her version of) the LATimes editor, Shelby Coffey III, described standing in his news room and watching the windows across from him get smashed, the glass flying across the desks. It was an unbelievably cinematic moment, and all it entailed was Smith pretending to be a tall, patrician white male speaking in quiet tones of shock.