Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

A One-Woman Riot: Brooklyn 1991 and Los Angeles 1992

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

A One-Woman Riot: Brooklyn 1991 and Los Angeles 1992

Article excerpt

My sense is that American character lives not in one place or the other, but in the gaps between the places, and in our struggle to be together in our differences. It lives not in what has been fully articulated, not in the smooth-sounding words, but in the very moment that the smooth-sounding words fail us. It is alive right now. We might not like what we see, but in order to change it, we have to see it clearly.

--(Smith, Fires in the Mirror xli)

If I were to go around and listen listen listen to Americans, would I end up with some kind of a composite that would tell me more about America than what is evidently there?

--(Smith, Talk to Me 50)

In two plays written and performed by Anna Deavere Smith, the African American playwright and actor transforms historical and personal accounts of two contemporary riots into documentary-style dramatic works that perform race relations and gender identity through a series of character monologues. Smith interviews a range of subjects involved in, connected to, or outside of the events surrounding these episodes of mass violence and then constructs performance pieces using selected parts of the oral histories she records: the characters she embodies in her lanky black frame and projects in her versatile voice are male and female; participant and bystander; scholar, activist, and politician; Jew and Gentile. They are black, brown, white, and yellow. As a woman of color, influential in the public sphere through her writing, speaking, and teaching, Smith has worked to create candid conversations on race, doing so in a contentious time and saying, through a compilation of voices, at least some of what is needed to open a channel of communication about race. By using the words of others, she has created a new language through which many speak about race hatred and fear.

In Fires in the Mirror (1992), Smith records and performs a community's reaction to an unfortunate traffic accident in which one child is killed and another seriously injured, an incident that serves as the catalyst for a series of violent racial confrontations in the Crown Heights area of Brooklyn in the summer of 1991. In Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 (1993), Smith weaves together forty of approximately two hundred recorded interviews she conducted with the participants and witnesses of the violent explosion that followed the not-guilty verdicts in the criminal trials of four police officers whose notorious beating of Glen "Rodney" King on March 3, 1991, was captured on videotape. King, an African American man, had been stopped by the officers for a traffic violation and subsequently beaten violently, sustaining eleven skull fractures and brain and kidney damage. In the aftermath of the incident, the officers involved filed a report that stated that King did not stop when signaled to, but increased his speed during a freeway pursuit of several miles. The four officers were charged with assault with a deadly weapon and use of excessive force. (1) These two examples of urban riots less than a year apart in the early 1990s helped to set the tone about race in that decade, a time in which tense social and economic battles about race and privilege eroded affirmative action gains and called into question the viability of race equality even as the United States population became increasingly racially and ethnically mixed.

Smith's documentation of these riotous social rifts constitutes part of a larger theatrical undertaking that she calls "On the Road: A Search for American Character," her ongoing project of recording and reenacting the words and the witnesses of contemporary American history. Attilio Favorini puts Smith's work into the context of a performance genre he calls "history-telling," a term which, according to Favorini, "attempts to connote the oral, memorializing and reality-driven nature of this species of representation" (89). (2) In both Fires and Twilight, Smith uses a solo performance structure to create a mosaic of voices through which women of color are free to join other historically recognized and recorded groups (white men, white women, and men of color, in that order, perhaps) in voicing feelings about race riot violence and its consequences. …

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