Writer: Anna Deavere Smith
Director: Ola Ince
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
in 1992, two white officers in the Los Angeles Police Department were acquitted on charges relating to the brutal beating of Rodney King, an Afro-American, leading to riots, looting and, bloodshed. “LaLa Land” was revealed to all the world as a city of scars.
Anna Deavere Smith has devised this 90-minute piece of verbatim theatre from the testimonies of witnesses and of those involved directly in the mayhem and what ensued. The overall picture that she paints is a bleak one of a city torn apart along racial lines and of communities – whites, blacks, Koreans, Mexicans – embarking on close to tribal warfare, all accusing and blaming the others. Divisions brought into focus by the current American Presidency give these accounts added topical relevance and memories of London in August 2011 bring them close to home.
Jacob Hughes’ design, with chairs scattered all around the studio space, resembles a village hall and, once the audience has gathered, the atmosphere becomes that of a community meeting in protest at, say, a proposed by-pass. There is even a 10-minute tea break to calm things down, perhaps necessary because the mood is often very angry indeed as we learn of injustices, helplessness and hopelessness. The room becomes filled with the fury of those who throw the dice against those who load it.
The problems with verbatim theatre usually come with making prosaic testimonies interesting and piecing them together to form a cohesive whole. Director Ola Ince offers her solution in the shape of a force of nature named Nina Bowers, a lady who demands not to be ignored. Her style could be likened to punching us on the nose with an iron fist that is inside a padded glove. She establishes her amiability by chatting casually with the audience before the performance and handing round biscuits during the tea break, before pummelling us mercilessly with one anguished story after another.
After leading us to believe that the differences in a broken city are irreconcilable, Deavere Smith saves the most revelatory testimony until last. A juror at the officers’ second trial tells, with humour and perception, how deliberations became a kind of cathartic process which swept away deeply embedded prejudices and led to the correct outcome. Out of all this gloom, a ray of light finally shines through.
Runs until 10 February 2018 | Image: Contributed