Pictured: Ambrym Smith (Brian Nielsen)

All reviews are written by Cappies student critics and edited by Cappies adult mentors prior to publishing.

Joseph Powers, a student at T.C. Williams High School reviews “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992”, performed by Duke Ellington School for the Arts , as part of The Cappies Critics and Awards Program

As helicopters probed the city with searchlights, the cacophony of ambulance sirens and police dispatches could not quite eclipse the roar of the mob, as a riot threatened to become a revolution. It was just one of the many scenes where Duke Ellington School of the Arts blurred the line between fiction and reality, in their production of “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992.”

This innovative play attempts to describe the tensions and emotions of the L.A. riots following what many believe to be the wrongful acquittal of four white police officers charged with the beating of Rodney King, an African American. “Twilight” is presented in docudrama style, with scenes arranged around recreations of interviews--in this case interviews presented exactly as they were recorded, with no editing. By retelling stories from multiple perspectives, whether racial, political, or economic, “Twilight” seeks to explore the ideas of race and racism, community, and the nature of justice.

Duke Ellington chose not only to use colorblind casting, but to deliberately cast actors in unexpected roles. The male Duane Richards played the female opera singer Jessye Norman; the white girl Ambrym Smith played the proudly black man Paul Parker. This casting made an important point about the equality of race and showcased the terrific handling of dialect by the majority of the cast. At times however, casting and the use of minimalist costuming made it hard to readily identify characters, which hurt their development and at times distracted from the show. While the names were presented on four screens for the audience, the descriptions were sometimes hard to read.

“Twilight” was originally written and performed by Anna Deveare Smith as a one-actor performance. In this production, stage time was shared essentially equally by twelve actors, so it was in effect an ensemble with no real leading roles or supporting cast.  Duane Richards, who played varying roles such as a Hollywood talent agent, a defense expert on use of force, former Senator Bill Bradley, and opera singer Jessye Norman, showed an amazing versatility. Richards was able to vary his diction and body language to such a degree that it was hard to tell exactly which parts he had played. Felicity Poussaint brought a superb naturalism to her roles, particularly as Elvira Evers, a pregnant woman shot in the abdomen during the events, and Dani Ebbin in all her roles had a terrific, riveting intensity. Overall, acting was uniformly excellent, with actors managing characterizations, particularly when it came to age, at a level well above average for a high school play.

Interesting directorial decisions defined the show. Rather than trying for greater realism, “Twilight” stayed true to the inventive nature of the script. Actors performed in the shadow of a dramatically stylized flag, before what appeared to be a grave stone. The audience sat onstage, with a thrust style performing space in the center. In some scenes, performance trumped adherence to naturalism, oftentimes to pleasing results. For instance, an actress being interviewed pounded hard on the ground, the sound echoing through the theater, to emphasize her points. In another, the entire ensemble slowly came onstage to play one character to symbolize perhaps the complexity and universality of human nature.

With “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,” Duke Ellington School of the Arts stayed true to the source material. Their production was an innovative and wonderful example of what theater can be.