Humane Voices

All of a sudden there on-camera is Jessye Norman, the diva, high and haughty and asking her majestic self why she should be in Los Angeles in the middle of the 1992 insurrection. Well, she says, African-Americans have had to sing their way through the centuries. On the other hand, what she hears on these mean streets is more than a song; it’s a “roar.” Such a grandly operatic moment, and perfectly pitched – except, of course, she isn’t Jessye Norman. She is Anna Deavere Smith, the performance artist, impersonating Norman. Just as ten minutes later in Twilight: Los Angeles, Cornel West, swirling his brandy in a snifter, caressing his own sinuous cadences as he speaks of “black sadness,” isn’t Cornel West but Deavere Smith again, inhabiting him, showing her teeth.

To be sure, Norman and West are public performers, practiced exaggerations. Maybe they are easy to do, like Bogart. Or the Al Sharpton that Deavere Smith gave us in Fires in the Mirror, her earlier play on race war in Crown Heights, like Twilight a one-woman opera in which she sang all the arias. But how then to explain her Daryl Gates, the police chief who went to a fund-raiser as L.A. erupted after the cops were acquitted of beating on Rodney King like a gong; her Charlton Heston, grinning at his liberal friends who called up wanting to borrow a shotgun; her Reginald Denny, the white truck driver brutalized by black thugs on live TV (but also rescued and rushed to the hospital by black Samaritans unable to stand what they saw on their sets), who is almost goofy with goodwill; not to mention a Korean grocer, a Hollywood agent, a Los Angeles Times editor, a Simi Valley juror, and various lawyers and activists and demagogues and gangbangers.

Deavere Smith is a chameleon, a shaman, and an exorcist. With a squint of eye, a curl of lip, a twist of neck, and a body slanguage equally at home in boardrooms and barrooms, she embodies everyone she sees. In Fires in the Mirror, having interviewed Orthodox rabbis, jittery housewives, black businessmen, media heavies, and deracinated street kids, she played with telephones, coffee cups, and hair, put on accents and airs, became pain, bafflement, posture, and shtick. By juxtaposition, we saw around corners, into recesses. Like the “Camera Eye” and “Newsreel” sections of a John Dos Passos novel, she recapitulated. Like talk radio and docudrama, she hallucinated. Hate went up like a kite, but so did humor. To the anguish of Crown Heights, she brought her own surpassing generosity. If she could speak in so many tongues, maybe our culture could also hear them.

Twilight: Los Angeles tells a different story. Besides speaking in tongues, she revisits in 1999 some of the principals she talked to for her stage play, like the eloquent Latino journalist Ruben Martinez. They seem more depressed now than they were in the immediate aftermath of South Central. We see, again, King being beaten, and Denny, too, and the video surveillance tape of the shooting of a teenage black girl by a Korean grocer over an orange-juice carton. We hear at keening length from these Koreans, whose businesses in South Central were 90 percent destroyed in the riots. We are reminded that, after $1 billion in damages and 45 dead, 36 of whom were black and Latino, none of the damage done was to Beverly Hills or to the downtown merchant district. And there isn’t as much laughter, except when it’s hysterical.

(I should say that we aren’t told that Salvadorans fared as badly as Koreans. Police Chief Gates originally blamed the riots on illegal aliens, so the INS rounded up and deported thousands of “undocumented” Latin Americans. Nor are we told of the defection of employers like Goodyear, Ford, and Max Factor from the L.A. inner city long before the trouble started, causing structural unemployment. In this bright new millennium, social and economic justice are not among our talk-show issues.)

Twilight, in other words, hurts. Please listen to it anyway. These are the human voices of an urban space, as Mike Davis told us in City of Quartz, that’s been militarized by the architectural policing of social boundaries and the totalitarian semiotics of ramparts and battlements. So set was L.A. on making sure its upscale downtown merchants would be forever safe from another Watts riot that, starting in the seventies, it turned itself into a fortress, with corporate citadels and surveillance towers, elevated pedways and subterranean concourses, tourist-bubble parks and panopticonic shopping strips, residential enclaves like hardened missile silos and libraries like dry-docked dreadnoughts. Add to this a pacification of the human-landfill poor in strategic-hamlet housing projects on barricaded streets in inner-city neighborhoods and zoned against cell phones and whistling, with barrel-shaped bus benches to make sure you can’t sleep on them, caged cashiers in the convenience stores, bulletproof acrylic turnstiles in the fast-food joints, metal detectors in the hospitals, lockdowns in the elementary schools, and curfews outlawing groups of more than two juveniles from “associating in public view” in their own front yards.

And it worked. As Davis reports in his sequel, Ecology of Fear, no sooner had Simi Valley acquitted the cops who rioted all over Rodney than “sentient” buildings with mainframe brains went into prevent mode. Steel gates rolled down over entrances to bank towers, escalators froze, electronic locks sealed off pedestrian passages, and a financial district prophylacticked against sans-culottes went on happily recycling Japanese trade surplus into Southland turf-and-surf. Too bad about the Koreans. Too late for all of us – unless, that is, we really hear Anna Deavere Smith. Like Studs Terkel, she is less an oral than an oratorio historian, and her stagecraft, as much as performance art, is also performing grace.

61* is director Billy Crystal’s love letter to the 1961 New York Yankees, when Roger Maris hit 61 homers to earn that shameful asterisk, and Mickey Mantle, whom the fans preferred, had to quit after 54. Barry Pepper is an amazing Maris look-alike, Thomas Jane manages to suggest the damage Mantle did to himself, and Richard Masur plays the sort of sportswriter I wanted to grow up to be, before I got distracted … The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg is a nice companion piece. The first Jewish baseball superstar hit 58 for the Tigers in 1938, in spite of an anti-Semitism that stuck around until at least Sandy Koufax. Besides Ira Berkow and Dick Schaap, we also hear from Bob Feller, Ralph Kiner, Walter Matthau, and Alan Dershowitz.

TV Notes

Harvest of Fear (April 24; 9 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13), in which “Frontline” and “Nova” team up to go easy on the biotechnologists and genetic modifiers of our basic food groups, spends more time worrying about papayas and “eco-terrorists” than it does about whether companies like Monsanto can be trusted to keep us better informed on the possible downside to hybrids for profit than they were on the carcinogens in their friendly manmade chemicals (see Bill Moyers and Trade Secrets, just the other week, same public-television channel). Very disappointing.

Lost in Las Vegas (April 29; 9 to 11 p.m.; A&E) is an absorbing account of the trials and tribulations of a pair of Blues Brothers imitators who journey all the way from Canada to try to make it big in the capital of glitz. While I don’t for a minute believe that Vegas – “America as a stripper,” Lady Liberty in see-through beads – symbolizes anything more profound about the American soul than, say, Boise, Idaho, or Oxford, Mississippi, it is certainly a dreamscape of loneliness.

Steve Martini’s The Judge (April 29 and 30; 9 to 11 p.m.; NBC) stars Chris Noth as the crusading defense attorney; Edward James Olmos as the arrogant judge he doesn’t like but must defend against a murder charge trumped up by corrupt cops; Lolita Davidovich as the big squeeze; Sonia Braga, who deserves more time; and Charles Durning, who could do with less. I don’t see why we have to sit through such a lame mini-series when a first-class cop show like Big Apple disappears without a trace from prime time.

Dwarfs: Not a Fairy Tale (April 29; 10 to 11 p.m.; HBO) is America Undercover on another of its peculiar forays into a subculture about which the rest of us are presumed to have kinky thoughts, in this case “little people,” most of them achondroplasiacs, five of whom are talked to and followed around and turn out to be ordinary except short. I’m not trying to make a Randy Newman joke. I’m simply saying I’m not surprised.

Twilight: Los Angeles
Sunday, April 29; 9 to 10:30 p.m.; Channel 13.
Saturday, April 28; 9 to 11 p.m.; HBO.
The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg
Sunday, April 29; 7:30 to 9:05 p.m.; Cinemax.

Humane Voices