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D.C. Director Revisits Los Angeles Riots

Stacy M. Brown | 4/30/2014, 3 p.m.
Caroline Clay

A District native and playwright who said she envisions theater as socially transformative has stepped into the director’s chair for her latest work about one of the country’s most polarizing events: The 1992 Los Angeles riots.

Caroline Clay, who earned critical acclaim in 2013 for her role as the lead in the Dan Dietz play, “Clementine and the Lower 9,” will direct playwright Anna Deavere Smith’s, “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,” a documentary featuring a small cast of actors from the University of Maryland School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies.

The play runs from Saturday, May 3, to Saturday, May 10 at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center on the university’s campus in College Park, Maryland.

“This is a powerful piece based on the riots and based on Smith’s way of putting it together,” said Clay, a Duke Ellington School of the Arts graduate who grew up in Northwest.

“It’s based on hours upon hours of interviews with about 300 people, and in the original adaptation, Smith herself played more than 40 different characters,” Clay said.

Several Maryland students will fill in the various roles this time as the shifting points of view in the Tony Award-nominated play, which creates moving, insightful and multiple perspectives on one of the worst urban disasters in American history.

The backdrop, of course, is the 1991 brutal police assault on African-American motorist Rodney King, which an amateur photographer caught on video. When footage of the beating was broadcast nationwide, many individuals expressed outrage.

Tensions spilled over a year later, in 1992, in the aftermath of the trial and acquittal of the police officers charged with assaulting King. Protests and, eventually, the riot broke out in the streets of Los Angeles, ultimately claiming the lives of 50 people and costing the city an estimated $1 billion in damages.

“What happens in the play is that we are providing a comprehensive portrait through the verbatim words of the people from the ashes of the riots,” Clay said.

“There are the perspectives of the store owners, the truck driver named Reginald Denny who was badly beaten by rioters, shopkeepers, lawyers, activists, police and the Korean community in Los Angeles.”

Clay said “Twilight” offers an introspection of the social, economic and political impact the King beating and subsequent verdict and the riots had not only on Los Angeles, but on the entire nation.

“I believe Anna Deavere Smith is an emphatic genius for discovering the humanness in spoken word through her documentary style theater about the riots,” said Sisi Reid, a senior and theater major at the University of Maryland who’s performing in the play.

“Being a part of a show that includes actual words of real people is humbling and exciting. In my acting, I’m always very particular about learning every single word in my lines, but for this show, I am even more caring of the speech, so I can fully respect the existence and memory of each person,” said Reid, 21.

Already, cast members said rehearsals have revealed a roller coaster of emotions with actors who weren’t born at the time of the riots, sensing what the individuals involved may have been going through as they watched their homes, businesses and community go up in flames.

Noah Israel, who majors in neurobiology and physiology and theater at the University of Maryland, said Clay’s direction has proven to be a godsend.

“Rehearsal is where I go to forget about all the stress related to my academics, social and personal life. So it means a lot to have a director in Caroline Clay who is willing to go far beyond her duties as a director to support us,” said Israel, 20.

“I hope this show is able to spark some very heated discussions when audience members leave the theater. I believe that’s what theater should be about. Sure, it can be pretty and sound nice, but is it really worth all that much if we aren’t inspiring people and making them think as they leave the space that evening?”

Tickets for the performances are $25 for general admission and $10 for students. To purchase tickets or for more information about the show, visit www.claricesmithcenter.umd.edu, or call (301) 405-2782.