Eight years ago, Los Angeles was burning, the site of the worst race riots since Watts. A grainy videotape, made several months earlier, incited the violence. It showed white L.A. police officers beating Rodney King, a black man. Americans, who had seen the videotape on TV in the months leading up to the indictments, looked on in disbelief when a California jury dismissed all charges against the officers. Later, there would be a federal investigation, the officers would be convicted, and King and the black community would feel vindicated, but not before 48 people died and countless others suffered the loss of their homes and businesses.

In Twilight: Los Angeles, Anna Deavere Smith portrays the organizers of the protests that led to the L.A. riots; Blacks, Koreans and Latinos who were the victims; and one woman who hid out at a Beverly Hills hotel, along with other affluent Los Angeles residents. Smith, who first gained national recognition for her play Fires in the Mirror-about the conflicts between blacks and Jews in Brooklyn-interviews her subjects, writes a play based on those interviews, and then portrays each of the characters. Her art is a unique combination of improvisation and editorializing, and no one escapes ridicule.

Smith, who is recognized as the creator of a unique art form, is also a teacher; she trains other artists who wish to connect their work to social issues. Her new play, House Arrest, unlike her previous one-woman plays, is performed by a cast. Smith's work educates audiences, and illustrates the complexity of particular social issues which the media often ignore or distort. So, watching Twilight: Los Angeles, which at one point has Smith's head floating across archival footage of the riots, you wonder why director Marc Levin (Whiteboys, Slam) didn't just point the camera and walk away. It's what a more experienced director would have done, confronted with Smith's talent.

Smith's portrayals in Twilight: Los Angeles are based on interviews she conducted immediately after the riots and then again in 1999. Some characters have dates attached to them, but since Levin doesn't indicate that the interviews were done over a period of time, at first you don't attach any significance to those dates. As a result, you can only place the characters in a very loose framework, and you don't understand the immediate effect of the riots separate from their aftermath, a dimension that clearly undercuts the integrity of Smith's work.

Levin often doesn't hold scenes long enough for the audience to absorb Smith's characterizations either; his frequent cuts between Smith and the archival footage further lessen the impact of the portrayals. The Rodney King footage is shown at least three times, an excess given the audience's familiarity with it. Worst of all, Levin has no feel for when the camera should be close in on Smith's face and when it should take in her clothing and props. You are either straining to get a better look or wishing you could see Smith's staging.

Despite Levin's ineptness, Twilight: Los Angeles features one of America's great living artists, and one of the few prominent artists, working in any medium, who continues to engage in political and social commentary. When Smith does Daryl Gates, the former L.A. police chief, or the cop who's conducting a training exercise in the use of a club-the very club used to beat King-you are convinced of the necessity of her art form in maintaining a free society.

--Maria Garcia