It has been a long while since I’ve had to wear a stickered name badge, and I wasn’t expecting my visit to Notting Hill’s Gate Theatre to be the next occasion when I would wear one. It is even more surprising when you consider the play: Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, which, written and first performed by Anna Deavere Smith, was borne out of the real-life interviews that she conducted following the April riots in the city.
Such heavy-hitting subject matter doesn’t scream meet and greet, but this production directed by Ola Ince, seeks to inject humour while provoking conversation around the topic. As you enter the room to songs about California, which vary from 2Pac to Katy Perry, it is evident that light and shade are present from the very beginning.
The desire to interact, and potentially provoke, is perhaps necessary: events that took place over 25 years ago may be distant reference points for many in the audience, and so to begin, the female-lead Nina Bowers asks the audience if they can remember Rodney King, the black man who was clubbed to death by four policemen who went uncharged. Or if they are familiar with the story of Latasha Harlins, a 15-year old black girl who was shot by a Korean shopkeeper who only received a $500 fine and community service for the crime. Hands are raised. Bowers then asks if we have friends who are of a different race, whether we have ever treated anyone differently because of the colour of their skin. There is an attempt to engage you as an individual with what is about to unfold, as Bowers dives head first into her full-throttled, one-woman rendition of 19 of those voices as interviewed a quarter of a century ago by Deavere Smith.
What is remarkable is that Nina Bowers manages to present these myriad voices, from Korean shopkeepers, black female activists, and policemen, verbatim and with great range. She becomes them all, at the core. Perhaps the most moving is the account from an innocent bystander, a pregnant woman who was shot and saved by her unborn child who caught the bullet in its barely formed arms. It is in this guise that Bowers demands that we “open our eyes”, and a wave of shame seems to hit you in the chest.
The set of bright pink seating and floors, contrasted with black walls and neon bars, is both evocative of LA in the 90s, and fitting for today. It seeks to marry the two times, and provides the ideal setting for the play’s illuminating punch. In fact, the lighting – designed by Anna Watson – is vital to the immersion that director Ola Ince is seeking to create, and there is one moment, bordering on pitch black, where Bowers shouting testimonial into what could be an empty chamber is no longer visible. It’s this overwhelmingly painful moment that evokes oppression in an almost visceral, Beckett-like sense.
One downside is perhaps those aforementioned, pesky name badges. Designed to act not as some cruel form of audience participation (fear not), but instead as an ice breaker reminiscent of work place bonding days, the stickers allow you to tell your fellow theatre-goers not only your name, but what you would like to talk about during the 10-minute tea break. In theory, it’s a nice, humanitarian idea. In practice, many don’t fill in their badges and are unaware of the concept, while those who have – on the hurried, and admittedly awkward shuffle to the trolley – tend to speak to those they came with rather than a new friend.
What’s more, somehow the idea of chatting to someone who has written ‘Football’ or ‘Cats’ on their chest after watching such an emotionally charged and politically poignant piece of theatre feels frankly inappropriate. The same goes for the meme-esque quotes on the sleeves on the paper cups provided. For once, Tolstoy dilutes the action.
Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 is an intense, visceral piece of immersive theatre that shakes you up. Yet, there are two issues. While it may try, the events and specificity of the script mean that even though there are some very poignant moments, the guilt and the pain is not long-lasting because it lacks relevancy to a 2018 London audience. Secondly, the gimmicks, while they may act as light relief, in fact take away from what is a remarkable work and an outstanding, energetic performance by Nina Bowers.
Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 is playing at the Gate Theatre until 10 February 2018
Photo: Cameron Slater