I wrote these words in 1993, almost exactly 27 years ago: excerpts from the program notes for the world premiere of Anna Deavere Smith’s “Twilight: Los Angles 1992” at the Mark Taper Forum in downtown Los Angeles. Smith interviewed over 200 Angelenos to craft her play. I served as one of the dramaturgs on this landmark work, that remains—alas—all too salient in our current moment. Nothing appears to have changed on a structural level since that time, as the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and countless others so searingly demonstrate.
Perhaps a few glimmers of hope break through the darkness: the possibility of more police reform across the country (Minneapolis still permits the choke hold!), a more multiracial group of protestors than in ’92 or ‘65, the use of social media (double-edged sword, to be sure) to document acts of brutality, the activists’ savvy decision to extend marches to affluent, whiter communities, thus implicating whiteness and class, while averting the destruction of South Central and parts of K-town and the East Side.
Amidst the relentlessness of physical death, I look at one level to community organizing/ recrafting policy and legislation—i.e., the political as conventionally defined. I also look to the arts to redress psychological and what I call affective violence, the slow leaching of life and energy through relentless, everyday interactions and oppressive exclusions, including “representations” on stage, page, and screen. At their best, the arts can be life-affirming; they can “give you a lift,” “change the air,” in a world that would choke the life from so many. Artists of color and other minoritarian artists can enact visions of possibility in acts of what I call reparative creativity. They can help us to imagine otherwise.
Here are my notes for one artist’s attempt at reparative creativity.
Los Angeles, City of Angels. Repository of dreams, allegorical site of the race and class wars of the late twentieth century, multicultural utopia. A place where no single racial majority will exist by the beginning of the 21st century, Los Angeles is witness to the transformative impact of these demographic shifts. In Los Angeles, the “Other” is beginning to speak back, and all of us acutely feel the resulting tensions and contradictions. But equally compelling are historically unprecedented possibilities that speak eloquently to me as a woman of color, an Asian American, a Japanese American. Its sprawling inexhaustibility, its daunting complexity, even its wrenching contradictions, make Los Angeles a place I love, with tenderness and passion, like no other. It is the only place I have ever felt at home.
April 1992 was symptomatic of historical legacies of conquest, colonization, racism, and class warfare. It was a moment when the fortress mentality and violent repressions of a police state combine with often poignantly misdirected cross-racial hostility. For a moment, the unique cultural possibilities that exist here seem crushed, aflame, fractured. At the same time, the continuing ‘state of emergency’ in which we live was never so clearly thrown into relief. Twilight insists on bearing witness to this “state of emergency”. People of all colors, genders, ages, tell their stories, giving meaning to the violence and bristling tensions of last year’s events and to the predicaments and possibilities of life in our late twentieth century worlds…
Anna Deavere Smith… eloquently demonstrates that difference is not simply a proliferation of exotic flavors and colors, but marks unequally weighted positions in a matrix of power.
One shouldn’t, of course, make too much of the ability of one production or one person to encompass problems that are deeply, structurally embedded in our nation’s history. Still, Twilight sharply articulates many of the urgent dilemmas animating our lives at this historical moment. It’s my hope that Twilight offers one opportunity for Angelenos to envision a Los Angeles that can be a home to all of us.
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