Anna Deavere Smith has such a distinctive way of creating theater that it’s difficult to imagine the pieces without her. She calls her series of one-person shows “On the Road: A Search for American Character,” and typical of her process is “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,” based on the police beating of Rodney King and the subsequent trial and riots. Smith interviewed about 200 people involved in those events and edited the transcripts down to a few dozen characters and well-chosen excerpts.
And then Smith — both onstage and on film — echoed both the voices and the body language of those people. Who else could do those characters as well?
Gradually, however, the theater world recognized that Smith’s scripts don’t necessarily require her presence onstage, and now Howard County’s Rep Stage is doing a one-woman version of “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,” with D.C. actress Danielle A. Drakes filling Smith’s shoes.
“For me, it’s not any different from playing any character,” Drakes says, “because every role has to be brought to life. Well, it is different in that you can go to YouTube, look up these characters, and say, ‘Oh, she doesn’t sound just like that person.’ But if the storytelling is solid, that’s what matters. . . . We’re all human, and we all have faults; you have start there.”
The first step in mounting this production of “Twilight” was deciding which monologues to use and which to lose. Smith had created different, though overlapping, scripts for “Twilight” depending on the circumstances: onstage in L.A., onstage in New York, on film, in print, in ensemble versions for colleges. She has encouraged new productions to make their own choices. So Drakes and her director, Paige Hernandez, distilled the 170-page book form of the script (too long for any one-person show) to a 100-page working script.
“There’s a lot to choose from,” Hernandez says. “Anna had whole sections dealing with the tension between blacks and Koreans and with the rebuilding of the city; we decided to not do those. We focused on what happened to King: the beating, the trial and the aftermath. That gave us a strong structure: a beginning, a middle and an end. Once you have a script, it’s like any play. You buckle down and dig into the characters and the action.”
These characters were real people, and many of them are still alive. If you’re portraying Maxine Waters, a longtime Democratic politician in the U.S. House of Representatives, the audience may well know what she looks like and sounds like. Even so, Drakes says, you must take care to evoke the Waters of 1992, not the Waters of 2019.
There’s a further challenge in preparing not just one or two characters but several dozen, including some that you might not find very likable.
“Do I like everyone I’m playing? No,” Drakes says. “Do I understand them? Yes. Even the cop who beat Rodney King and was acquitted, I have to discover and accept the motivation for his action, and the background behind that motivation. I have to be truthful to that for the three or four minutes of the monologue. The moment Danielle the actress comments on the character, you pull out of the character and undermine the monologue.”
Drakes and Hernandez have worked together before. For the one-person show “Paige in Full,” Drakes was the director and Hernandez the actress. They’re both extremely busy this year. After “Twilight,” Drakes will direct “Antigone” at Catholic University, where she teaches, and Dane Figueroa Edidi’s “Klytmnestra: An Epic Slam Poem” for the Theater Alliance. While Hernandez has spent her evenings directing “Twilight,” she has been spending her days directing Josh Wilder’s “She a Gem” for the Kennedy Center.
Drakes and Hernandez have been willing to take on the extra work of “Twilight” because they believe the issue of police brutality is more relevant than ever. Both women cite Smith as an artist who can spark conversations about race that yield more light than heat.
“Anna was a pioneer who influences everyone who writes one-person shows today,” Hernandez says. “When I see her work, it resonates more for me than if it were from a fictional character. Part of that is knowing that it’s not fiction, that it’s based on her interviews. But part of it, too, is her ability to shape the material into drama. It fascinates me that she works as a journalist and turns the results into art.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that director Paige Hernandez participated in the protests in Baltimore over the 2015 death of Freddie Gray. Hernandez, who grew up in Baltimore, saw the aftermath of the protests. This version has been updated.
More theater from Going Out Guide:
Rep Stage, at Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Pkwy., Columbia. 443-518-1500 or repstage.org.
Dates: Through March 17.