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Many Voices In One Mouth

A public catharsis at Mark Taper Forum

TWILIGHT: LOS ANGELES, 1992. Conceived and performed by Anna Deavere Smith. Directed by Emily Mann. At the Mark Taper Forum through July 18.

LOTS of nervous laughter erupts from downtown audiences who are packing into Anna Deavere Smith's latest one-woman take on the national identity. The show is part of a series she has developed called, "On the Road: A Search for American Character," and takes a hard look at the Los Angeles riots.

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In "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992" she assumes the personas of 26 people whose lives were affected by the upheaval that caused 50 deaths and $3 billion in damage. Smith offers an after-the-fact examination of the event through highly varied personal lenses: a Panamanian immigrant mother, a teenage black gang member, a Hollywood talent agent, a Mexican sculptor, and others.

As in her previous stage show, "Fires in the Mirror," seen Off-Broadway and recently on PBS, the portrayals are based on hundreds of interviews that Smith has conducted. She then boiled down the verbatim responses into a compact 118-minute show, mimicking the voice and demeanor of her subjects.

To spotlight each character, she wears a telling piece of clothing, and takes advantage of simple props from furniture to lecture-pointers. Each character's name is identified on 15-foot high billboards that flank the small wood stage.

"I had an insane hatred in me for white policemen," she says, as besmocked Rudy Salas Sr., a sculptor and painter who was beaten by white police in the 1940s. "I have a prejudice against whites," she quotes, but "I'm not racist."

Behind Smith is a 25-foot white wall with a bay-window-sized opening that serves as graffiti-covered window, living-room backdrop, or video-monitor bank. Perhaps the evening's most poignant moments coincide with her use of the well-known 82-second tape of the King beating, and local news footage of rioting, including the beating of truck driver Reginald Denny.

Some of the figures need no introduction to local audiences: former police chief Daryl Gates; former president of the police commission, Stanley Sheinbaum; Sgt. Charles Duke (a use-of-force expert); the aunt of Rodney King.

"The reason we lost chokeholds [as a means of crime-suspect control] was because they caused 20 deaths," she says as Sergeant Duke.

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"I saw a woman waving a hammer outside the window of her car on the freeway," she says as Mr. Sheinbaum, recounting the first night of the rioting. "Which said to me, trouble."

As the embattled Gates, she says, "Suddenly, I became a symbol of police oppression. This is very tough to take."

The audience, cued by her exaggerated delivery (staccato coughs for Duke, a caricatured Brooklyn Jewish accent for Sheinbaum, and head mannerisms for Gates) guffawed at the characterizations.

The strength of Smith's approach is her ability to filter all the interviews through one lens for cohesion, unity, and context - a kind of metaphoric e pluribus unum (out of many views, one view - hers). But there is also the danger that what is sold as straight news (because of the tag "verbatim") is really editorialized through her considerable skills of dramatic interpretation (tone, presentation, and choice of dialogue.)

ONE wonders for instance, what such figures as Gates and Sheinbaum think of the buffoon caricatures Smith has turned them into with the use of their own words.

Sheinbaum has written to the local press to express surprise over at least one part of Smith's portrayal of him, saying, "What startled me was that the audience broke out in strong laughter.... There was nothing at all comic or humorous in the way I ... described [Gates's] response."

But there is no denying that the charm of this piece is the armchair-quarterbacking, truth-be-told aspect of weaving these isolated, varied comments into a single whole. Smith embodies the diversity of her subjects and their tension, but she seems to play them for comic relief, as if saying, "Can you believe these people said all these things about the same incident?"

With this world-premiere opening just months after a second (federal) trial of the four police officers accused of beating Rodney King, the guffaws, giggles, and full belly laughs she elicits are like steam screaming from a safety valve. Among many other things, the show is a much-needed community catharsis, as audiences reexamine details of their recent history.

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