Running lines and memorizing blocking are part of a typical actor’s rehearsal process. For Katrinah Carol Lewis’s new show, it also includes listening to ’90s hip-hop, such as Ice Cube and Tupac.
“Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992” is a piece of documentary theater chronicling that year’s race riots in Los Angeles. They followed the not-guilty ruling for four police officers charged in the beating of black motorist Rodney King, a brutal attack caught on film that sparked massive protests and national attention.
The production is a timely reflection of issues that continue to prevail in a country where race relations, as well as police brutality and accountability, remain key topics in national conversation and news coverage. Lewis says listening to hip-hop as part of the research process helps her connect with the emotional spirit of that event.
“The music of that time was very out of the energy of the gangs and the black community in that area,” she says. “It was very reflective of the time, the rage and why people were angry, but also the everyday experience.”
The show’s dialogue consists entirely of word-for-word interviews from people who experienced the riots, conducted and adapted for the stage by author Anna Deavere Smith.
In the spirit of the original production, “Twilight” will be performed in Richmond as a one-woman show, in which Lewis will portray nearly 30 characters of all ages, races, genders and classes. They’re as wide-ranging as an opera singer, a real estate agent — and even one of the police officers accused of King’s beating.
With the assistance of director Addie Barnhart, Lewis is listens to sound clips, observing images of the riots, and works with dialect coach Erica Hughes. The process is as much historical research as rehearsal. But for both Lewis and her director, the goal isn’t exact replication. They aim more for a faithful representation.
“Obviously we’re going to go in with a bias and think, I want to see this person be that person, but to me that’s not artistry, that’s mimicry [and] I’m not interested in that,” Barnhart says. “I want them to be living, breathing human beings because they are living, breathing human beings, and they deserve to be treated as such.”
The show is a part of Cellar Series, a set of supplementary productions to TheatreLab’s main stage season, Women at War. Lewis, who serves as TheatreLab’s associate artistic director, organized this secondary series under the theme When the Other Becomes the Self as an exploration of war, violence and the tendency in American culture for people to separate themselves from things they view as different.
“What I find when I delve into this play is that the questions being asked, the concerns being brought up, the attitudes being explored — I see that the same exact things could be said to today,” Lewis says of the play’s relevance to current events. “How can we make some changes? How can we move forward? I don’t really know the answer, but I do think empathy is involved, and the acknowledgement that there is a problem.”
Lewis and Barnhart want to use theater as a tool for education, social commentary, and initiating change as a way of engaging in a continuing national conversation.
“Hopefully we’ll be able to move through this story and make a difference or at least ask people to look at this in a different way, and remind everyone how relevant this topic is now,” Barnhart says. “We are constantly losing black lives. It’s in the papers every day. This is still our reality, and yet, we’re acting as if this is normalcy. So, the fact that that is where we are makes this piece even more important right now.” S
Twilight will be performed at TheatreLab’s venue the Basement from March 24 to April 1, with an added performance on May 4, the 25th anniversary of the riots.