This one woman play about the aftermath of the Los Angeles riots in 1992 was much admired when it first appeared two years after the events it depicted. Now, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter campaign and new racial tensions in the US, its revival at the tiny Gate Theatre feels timely and pertinent.
The riots, which lasted six days, and led to widespread arson, looting and killings in Central Los Angeles, were triggered when an all-white jury acquitted four police officers of assault and use of excessive force in the case of Rodney King, a black taxi driver whose vicious beating with batons by police had been recorded by a witness on video.
The playwright and actress Anna Deavere Smith based her monologue (which she also performed) on transcripts of 300 witness statements gathered in the aftermath of the troubles. We hear 24 of them here, from the words of an anonymous juror, to a campaigning congress woman, to Rodney King's aunt, to a gang leader, to the white truck driver who was nearly battered to death in the wave of anger, but was saved by black residents.
The problem at this distance is that the fragmented nature of the play makes it hard exactly to follow what is going on, and the decision to cut the verbatim accounts back from almost double the number in the original play thins the story. Certain themes emerge: the breakdown of trust between the police and the black community, the sense that a white life always counts for more than a black one, the lack of understanding between Korean shopkeepers (principal targets of the looting) and the black neighbourhoods they served; the ingrained prejudices that make clear views of anything impossible.
The Gate production, directed by Ola Ince, frames all of this in the context of injustice. There's even a ten minute break half way through, where tea is served from a trolley in cups labelled with thought-provoking slogans. "There is no justice, only us: Terry Pratchett" mine read.
Despite the best efforts of designers Jacob Hughes and Anna Watson, who provide bright neon lights which change according to the different events, and the vivid effect and music filled sound track from Max Perryman, it remains interesting rather than engrossing. Certain points, like the fatal shooting of a 15 year-old girl by a Korean shop owner, seem to be part of the purpose of the story and then drift entirely from view.
The actress Nina Bowers, however, does her absolute best to hold it all together by the sheer force of her energy and commitment. Running around the tiny space, to give multiple characters different vantage points, she exudes belief. Her accent isn't always secure and some portrayals are better than others but she is moving as a pregnant woman who is shot, and sharply funny as a juror explaining the unfolding of a second, civil case brought against the police, and as the congress woman taking on President George H W Bush.
Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 runs at the Gate until 10 February.