A Civic Voice for the Theater

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

What role can theater play in society?

It's the perennial question that audience and theater-makers have grappled with since the ancient Greeks. What's the connection between theater and place? What voice does theater have in the civic dialogue of Los Angeles?

Back in 1993, in the wake of the Rodney King verdicts, Anna Deavere Smith's one-woman show Twilight: Los Angeles 1992 opened at the Mark Taper Forum.

Only 14 months after the fateful verdicts were handed down, Anna Deavere Smith brought the voices of a deeply conflicted city to life. The play was a tour de force of not only performance but sheer logistics. Ms. Smith conducted over 175 interviews ranging from Mayor Tom Bradley to Rodney King's aunt Angela, to Police Chief Daryl Gates to participants and victims from every walk of life.

The script was constructed from Ms. Smith's poetic edits of these interviews. She captured not only the words but the pauses, the stutters: the way we each construct meaning.

Theater is often a way for us to contemplate our past or rehearse our future. With Twilight, theater was helping a city make sense of its present. Taper Artistic Director, Gordon Davidson wrote in the show's program,

"As Anna was finishing Twilight, verdicts were reached in the federal trials of the four officers ..., and we all breathed a sigh of relief that there was not a replay of last year's violence."

This was Gordon Davidson and the Taper at their very best. Mr. Davidson recognized a city in need and knew that Ms. Smith was the artist to embody the city's deepest conflicts.

Twilight received standing ovations but was not without it's detractors. Critic Jan Breslauer wrote scathingly in the LA Times:

"Twilight" isn't just emotionally unengaging, it's analytically shallow."

But even this was a dialogue, John Lahr wrote in The New Yorker:

"Twilight''goes some way toward reclaiming for the stage its crucial role as a leader in defining and acting out that ongoing experiment called the United States."

20 years later we are still left with the question 'what does it mean to be an Angeleno?' and the more subtle question, 'can theater reclaim this crucial role?'

Mr. Davidson's wrote in the Twilight program,

"From Sophocles to Shakespeare to Tony Kushner, our greatest playwrights have used the words and actions of individual characters . . . to shed light on the human condition, and most importantly to show us ourselves. Therein lies the power of live theatre."

As audiences, we should demand our theater, Los Angeles theater, be as engaged in our civic dialogue. As theater-makers, we should live up to the responsibility Gordon Davidson so clearly spoke of.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Banner image: Anna Deavere Smith in the 1992 world premiere of Twilight: Los Angeles. Photo by Jay Thompson