A Master Mimic Reads the Riot Act


An unrivaled body snatcher, Anna Deavere Smith has gained a sizable, PBS-attuned audience for her one-woman, multicharacter plays, in which her primary method of social commentary is interrogation through impersonation. In stage works like Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Other Identities (1993) and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, she mimics, with ruthlessly minute precision, dozens of different personalities. Her preternatural skills can at first seem cruel, but in fact work as a rigorously unsentimental, boldly literal expression of empathy.

In Twilight, now adapted for the screen with director Marc Levin (Slam), the shards of wreckage left by the 1992 L.A. riots diffract the spectrum of Smith’s dramatis personae. They range from Angela King, Rodney King’s contained, movingly pragmatic aunt; to LAPD chief Daryl Gates (who explains his presence at a swanky party, “I was just going to drop in, say ‘Hey, I think we’ve got a riot blossoming, I can’t stay’ “); to a white former cop who demonstrates proper usage of a baton (“We lost the choke hold in ’82”); to one of Reginald Denny’s assailants, Henry “Keith” Watson, who compares himself to Martin Luther King; to a Korean liquor-store owner, shaking with sorrow and rage, whose husband was killed by looters. The story told by a Latina homemaker shot in the belly when she was eight months pregnant is as wrenching a suspense plot as you’ll see on screen this year. All of the monologues stem word-for-word from interviews that Smith conducted with hundreds of L.A. residents after the riots, and the revealing responses make clear that Smith’s shape-shifting gifts are matched by her journalistic prowess.

Twilight‘s surface look is dusky and unresolved, matching the murky videotape of the King beating (replayed so often during the Simi Valley trial, explains one jury member, that “Rodney King became like a doll”) and TV footage of the bombed-out South Central war zone. Levin’s camerawork is simple and unobstrusive: He closes in on Smith’s morphing face when she’s still, and discreetly tracks her when she’s stalking the ground-zero stage, which is choked with smoke, littered with miscellaneous debris, and precariously sheltered by a plastic-bag scrim. She embodies characters who speak in the language of figure-balancing—debt, payback, and collateral. Squeezing in dead-on celebrity cameos by Jessye Norman, Charlton Heston, and Cornel West, the playwright never gestures toward what she thinks is the right perspective; she only points out that all these perspectives exist, as worlds unto themselves. Their isolation, as well as their grapplings toward understanding, is highlighted by Smith’s lone-gunman performer’s stance.

Twilight‘s primary element, as was the case in Los Angeles’s lessons of darkness eight years ago, is fire: The players are consumed in the flames of their own misapprehensions, or else their eyes have been burned clean by experience; Smith’s work is a means of cauterizing wounds that have not even begun to heal—certainly not across a continent in Giuliani’s New York.

Valiant 90210 parolee Jason Priestley set out to document dogged cult band and fellow Canadians Barenaked Ladies on their tour of the States in 1998 and found himself filming a breakout success with a love-or-loathe No. 1 U.S. single (“One Week”). Barenaked in America is a pleasant if overlong road show starring five witty, sweet, humble guys, who know fans by name and improvise songs on the spot for tickled audiences (much of the concert footage was shot in longtime Barenaked stronghold Buffalo). It’s unabashed niche-market programming (with a lousy sound mix), but it seems as much a valentine to Barenaked fans as to the Ladies themselves—not least because the band members are such generous old-school showmen.