Anna Deavere Smith is the ultimate impressionist: she does people's souls.
She is so good at the task that to describe "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992" as a one-woman show is patently ridiculous. Probing the riots that erupted in April of that year, after the first Rodney King trial, she gives an epic accounting of neighborhoods in chaos, a city in anguish and a country deeply disturbed by the violent images, live and in color, coming over the nightly airwaves.
She does so by portraying nearly four dozen real-life individuals. Some were participants in the riots, others mere onlookers. A few were made momentarily famous by the media; a number still clutch their anonymity about them as if it were a security blanket. To each, however, Ms. Smith brings her penetrating eye and a voracious need to know what lurks in the depths of the human heart. Her subject may be daunting, but the scale of her investigation isn't. One person at a time, one idea at a time, one temperament at a time, she builds up a rich, panoramic canvas of a national trauma.
By every measurement, "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992," which opened last night at the Joseph Papp Public Theater in a sleek multi-media production directed by George C. Wolfe, is bigger than "Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities," the 1992 show that made Ms. Smith's reputation. Her method remains unaltered, though. Armed with a tape recorder and a manner that must invite frank confession, she interviews a wide cross-section of people connected with a significant current event, as any enterprising journalist might. Then the actress takes over. The tape-recorded testimony is transformed into roles to be played in quick and often startling juxtaposition.
This time, the triggering incidents are the savage 1991 beating of Mr. King by the Los Angeles police, captured on videotape and witnessed by millions of Americans, and the trial and acquittal of four of the officers, who maintained they were only acting in the line of duty. But other equally brutal events fuel the fear and fury coursing through Ms. Smith's piece: the assault on the truck driver Reginald Denny by rioters, also horrifyingly caught on videotape; the fatal shooting of Latasha Harlins by a Korean grocer who believed the 15-year-old girl was shoplifting; and the second trial of the Los Angeles police officers, not to mention the long history of uneasy relations among black, white, Asian and Mexican Americans in the palm-fringed crucible that is South-Central Los Angeles.
Although much of this is still seared on the nation's consciousness, explanatory subtitles are regularly flashed on the proscenium. And on a screen behind Ms. Smith, a dazzling swirl of projections and videotape, including that of the King and Denny beatings, periodically explodes to the wail of sirens and the hollow rat-a-tat-tat of machine-gun fire.
We are a far cry from the essentially bare stage that housed the performer's inquiry into the 1991 racial confrontations in Crown Heights. This production, which has glide-on, glide-off scenery by John Arnone and disco lighting by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, goes for a lot of the glossy, adrenaline-generating pizazz you expect of a Broadway musical. Ms. Smith, possessed of uncommon conviction and unflinching concentration, holds her ground magnificently.
Her living portraits range from Daryl F. Gates, the former chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, who tries to justify his presence at a fund raiser on the very night the riots were "blossoming," to Elaine Brown, the acerbic one-time head of the Black Panther Party, who, from her vantage point in France, differentiates between "strategy and swashbuckling" and advises hotheaded blacks that "if you just want to die and become a poster, go ahead." Mr. Denny, beaming a bit goofily, insists he harbors no bitterness whatsoever and talks about building "a happy room" in his house to display all the loving notes and memorabilia he has received from around the world.
In the sort of coincidence that makes Ms. Smith's pieces so revelatory, Paul Parker, who headed the defense committee for Mr. Denny's assailants, also talks about setting aside a room in his house. "It's gonna be my No Justice, No Peace room," he says, venting his implacable hatred for the white power structure.
Ms. Smith backs off from no one, even if it means assuming the majesty of the mezzo-soprano Jessye Norman and the oratorical pomp of Senator Bill Bradley, delivering some of her monologues in Korean and Spanish or plunging into the frazzled minds of inarticulate street people who desperately want to be heard. Yet in so much diversity, there is unity. Their perspectives may be wildly different, but all these people in their fashion are struggling to put sense into senselessness and find the justice in what looks like injustice run rabid. By the end, the piece has transcended specifics and become an expression of the eternal search for order in an anarchic world.
Varying her basic outfit of black slacks and blouse with the odd accessory -- a tie, a pair of rhinestone glasses, a baseball cap -- the actress changes identities primarily by changing her vocal rhythms and thought patterns. The words she's speaking remake not only her features but her sex and race as well. In two instances, "Twilight" allows Ms. Smith to venture even further and act out what could be self-contained mini-dramas.
The first is the story of Elvira Evers, a cashier from Panama who was pregnant and near delivery when struck by a random bullet. How she made it to the hospital and gave birth to a girl and what saved both their lives is the stuff of "Ripley's Believe It or Not." As Ms. Smith tells it, sweetly and simply, it makes for a triumphant monologue about love and acceptance, in which the dark forces of chance work in favor of humanity for once.
The evening's other standout is Maria, Juror No. 7 in the second trial of the four police officers. Recounting what went on behind closed doors, complete with devilish impersonations of her fellow jurors, she proves a regular live wire with a low tolerance for sham. In this case, how deliberations, weighted down in a morass of prejudice and personal guilt, got unstuck makes for triumph of a different kind. Ms. Smith does both women proud.
"Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992," which was seen in an earlier version last year at the Mark Taper in Los Angeles, is largely sold out for its run at the Public. On April 10, however, it moves to the Cort Theater on Broadway for a 16-week run. For its restless intelligence and passionate understanding, it will be welcome. For its appreciation of the singular voice in the howling throng, it should be treasured.