‘Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992’ returns to the stage, reshaped for a new era of explosive racial unrest
Stage fright, it turns out, happens not only for those on stage. That’s true for award-winning theater director Taibi Magar, who leads a production of Anna Deavere Smith’s “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992” slated to open Sept. 1 at the American Repertory Theater.
The play is a restructured version of the solo performance Smith premiered in New York in 1994. Smith was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play for the work and won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding One-Person Show the same year.
Magar, a 40-year-old Egyptian American, brings an impressive record of directorial credits to her own role in the reimagined production. The responsibilities can still be nerve racking. In a recent conversation, she recounted throwing up before math tests in high school due to nerves and how the feeling returns, though in less dramatic form, whenever she oversees a new piece.
“Twilight” portrays the reactions of Los Angelenos to riots that erupted after the 1992 acquittal of police officers charged in the beating of a black man, Rodney King. Smith interviewed more than 350 residents to explore what the A.R.T. calls “the fault lines that set the city ablaze,” synthesizing the material into dozens of roles she embodied for the original production. Variety called the work “a rare thing: the work of an artist at the top of her game, impossible goals impossibly reached.”
The latest incarnation for Cambridge audiences, staged last year at the Signature Theater in New York, has Magar at the helm of a cast of five following a redrafting by Smith.
Magar spoke about the ups and downs of the extended production process that began pre-Covid but was delayed by ongoing virus-related disruptions and an ever-evolving backdrop of racial violence across the country, including the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.
“It was a really painful and really explosive time. So the projection designer and I kept working. [It was] kind of insane,” Magar said – though working with Smith and the cast and crew was more than ample reward.
“I’ve learned so much from Anna about the nature of performance … the dramaturgical primary course of storytelling and her ability to communicate both as the playwright and from someone who’s been deep inside of it as a performer, inside and outside, for almost 30 years,” Magar said.
Magar said she “relished” Smith’s revision for five actors: “Not only is she holding on, of course, to the story of the black community in L.A., because it is a story ultimately about that, but she really strengthened the voices of the Asian American and the Latinx populations.”
Wesley T. Jones, one of the five performers, agrees – especially since he, like Magar, is a person of color.
Jones assumes roles as varied as celebrity Charlton Heston and Keith Watson, a black man and one of four who were charged with beating Reginald Denny, a white man, during the melee.
“Particularly for Keith, I could relate to some of his anger and frustration because at that time George Floyd was in our face, and Breonna Taylor.” And yet, Jones stressed from his own experience, “I think that that’s kind of what keeps us all from progressing is each of us staying on one side of an argument or, or staying in our own normality. To sit and listen to a black man express why he did something or sit and listen to a white officer express where they came from and what they saw, without judgment, with open ears and the open heart, I think it would help us moving forward when certain cases arise here. And we may automatically jump to the side of who looks like us rather than sitting back and observing both sides in coming with the more informed decision and opinion.”
Tackling social justice – and racial injustice in particular – seems to animate Magar’s career in theater.
“I tend to be excited about art that’s breaking boundaries and not necessarily comfortable. I really believe in theater as art. I like a sense of live theater that explodes the way that we might make assumptions about our lived reality in order to provide windows, to imagining something different, both for ourselves and for our communities,” Magar said.
Audiences at the A.R.T performances should walk away appreciating it too. “I think that Anna’s really trying to get you, the audience, and all of us in the community to deeply listen to these issues, to not just bite them off and see it as black and white, or to actually really breathe and sit with everyone’s worldview to try to deeply understand what’s going on,” Magar said. “I can’t do that work for them. You know, all I can do is provide a conversation and an experience that tries to open up another part of their brain, or activism.”
But what about the lingering dread of those early math tests and the fear of failure? After a career’s worth of reviews, Magar is unaffected. “I think of failure as a really precious part of the life of the artist, both the career failures, but also the artistic failures,” she said. “It’s a constant desire to keep growing, keep pushing myself, keep pushing my storytelling, keep connecting more deeply to who I am and to what theater can do.”