theatre

“For the auditions, I am looking for contrasts … To showcase your versatility, please pick two monologues … from 'Twilight LA, 1992.' Pick two that are NOT your ethnicity and one of the monologues must be of a different gender.

- LMU theatre arts program casting information

When sophomore theatre arts major Mia Rehwaldt read these audition requirements, she was confused. Rehwaldt felt the theatre arts department provided “virtually no explanation” for these requirements, aside from the fact that it was requested by the playwright.

"Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, " by Anna Deavere Smith, is about the beating of Rodney King, a Black man, by four Los Angeles police officers in 1991, and the public outrage that resulted in the L.A. riots in 1992. The play is written verbatim style, which means it uses real people's words, and Anna Smith interviewed over 350 L.A. residents in preparation for the piece.

The words delivered by Anna Deavere Smith in the performance are reenactments of interviews she conducted, according to the script’s production notes. "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992" opened on Broadway in 1994 and received a Tony Award nomination for Best Play.

Verbatim theatre has been included in the department’s coursework, and the play “seemed like a really great opportunity to bring the verbatim style of theatre into our production season,” said Katharine Noon, theatre arts chair.

While the play was performed as a one-woman show by Anna Deavere Smith, a Black woman, throughout its run on Broadway, LMU’s production planned to feature an ensemble cast. When performed by multiple actors, the script’s casting notes include detailed instructions and suggestions regarding the portrayal of race and ethnicity of the characters. According to Noon, Anna Deavere Smith’s casting suggestions were followed by the department out of respect for the playwright.

“If a character is identified as ['Black'], it is not the author’s intention that a [Black] person play the role. If a character is identified as a 'woman,' it is not the author’s intention that a woman necessarily play that role,” said Anna Deavere Smith in the casting notes of “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992.” Anna Deavere Smith specifies that a person who identifies with a character can play them, “but at other times, and most times, they do not.” The idea of the production, according to the note, is "to walk in the shoes of someone different from them.”

While Rehwaldt was uncomfortable with the audition requirements, she decided that she would fulfill their request for the audition, but would not play a character of a different race in a performance.

“When I came [to campus], I talked to a lot of other theatre [arts] majors and asked them if they were [going to] audition and what they thought about it. [I asked] if they thought it was immoral to [audition],” said Rehwaldt. “And everybody seemed really weirded out by it, but most of the people I talked to said they were just [going to] audition because they did want to be in a show.”

The auditions for "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992" were joint with another production called "Everybody."

Rehwaldt indicated on her audition sheet that she only wanted to be considered for the cast of "Everybody" because of her discomfort with the department’s casting requirements for the other production. When she received the notification that she was requested at the callback for "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992," she was confused.

Rehwaldt attended the callback on Sept. 2 in order to gain experience as an actor. The following morning on Sept. 3, she received an email notifying her that she was cast in the play. That same day, the cast had a two-hour rehearsal discussing the history of the play.

The cast did not know which roles they would be playing until they arrived at this rehearsal, according to Rehwaldt. The cast for "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992" only contained one Black cast member. The majority of the cast was white, according to Rehwaldt, and the majority of the play’s characters are people of color.

Theater in Color, a club which was created in 2019 by senior theatre arts major Kennedy Smith and another recently graduated student, was created “to uplift, support and advocate for all artists of color,” according to Kennedy Smith.

After seeing the casting requirements, Theater in Color was “on alert because we felt like that could get very problematic very fast. We were already uncomfortable,” said Kennedy Smith.

Following the release of the play’s casting notice, Kennedy Smith and other students reached out to faculty to voice their concerns. They were told to read the play’s production and casting notes, and to research the play in depth.

“I kind of did not want to see a white man doing a monologue about Black power. That’s kind of unsettling for me. I think that’s kind of a valid feeling," said Kennedy Smith.

By the first rehearsal on Sept. 3, Rehwaldt had emailed the director questions about the production’s casting and its intentions and potential effects in the community. The director, Jon Lawrence Rivera, encouraged her to come to rehearsal to discuss.

The cast felt uncomfortable that the group would not racially represent the individuals whose stories the play portrays because the majority of the cast was white, according to Rehwaldt.

“All the faculty members that were there [and] the hired director were just saying, 'We hear your concerns, but it’s going to be handled tactfully,’” said Rehwaldt.

As the production progressed, the cast attended a script read-through on Sept. 4.

Directly following the reading, Rehwaldt informed the director and stage manager that she would be declining the role because she felt that the production was "wrong."

“It also was not a good sign to me that [of] everyone in the faculty who was telling us that this was an okay show to do, none of them were Black," said Rehwaldt. “That felt wrong to me."

After only two rehearsals, the cast of "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992" walked out of rehearsal on Sept. 7.

At the request of the cast, a listening session was held on Sept. 8 with cast members, Noon, LMU College of Communication and Fine Arts Dean Bryant Alexander, whose presence was requested by the cast, Assistant Professor of Theatre Arts Arnab Banerji and representatives from Theater in Color, according to Kennedy Smith and Rehwaldt.

According to senior theatre arts and psychology major Joshua Merwise, the cast’s central concern was “that this is a play in which we were going to have to portray characters of other races,” he said. “It became clear from the first read-through that we were not going to be able to do that in a way that would [not] have been hurtful to people.”

Rehwaldt expressed her disappointment in the theatre arts department during the listening session.

“I came [to LMU] for this department and I just want to feel like they’re putting me in the best position to be successful and that they’re giving me amazing opportunities, and I feel really let down,” she said.

During the meeting, Noon and other facilitators “assured [the cast] that [they] heard them, and that this was a very valuable conversation,” said Noon. “Clearly there needs to be some things that need to change as far as [how] the season selection process goes and student input in that.”

According to Noon, the listening session was the deciding factor in the cancellation of "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992."

“For [Anna Deavere Smith] I think the play is about reconciliation and seeing through another person’s eyes,” said Noon. However, she realizes “that this was not the right thing to be doing at this time … And also, we just needed to listen sooner to what students were saying. This is a big learning experience and we’re taking all this to heart going forward.”

When asked about the cancellation, Rehwaldt said she believed it was the right thing to do and the only course of action after an entire cast walks out. “There were a lot of people who were offended by the show and thought it was the wrong thing to do. And I just don’t understand how that message didn’t get across before the show was selected,” she said.

The theatre arts program has a selection committee that reads and discusses plays to find shows that the department can produce throughout the school year. They narrow down a selection of plays that are then decided on by the entire theatre department faculty, according to Noon.

This committee is “made up of a diverse array of faculty, one staff person and a student. And that student is part of the committee, [including] the committee meetings and deliberations,” said Noon.

Kennedy Smith served as the sole student committee member and noted that she was one of three people of color in the committee when "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992" was selected.

Kennedy Smith volunteered to join the committee in the fall of 2020, which has included a student member for about 10 years, according to Noon.

Kennedy Smith said that during these committee meetings last semester, “there wasn’t really an in-depth conversation about ["Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992"] given the content … I was still kind of nervous to voice my opinion. Even though I have no problem starting a riot in fighting for diversity, equity and inclusion, I felt nervous giving my opinion on something.”

Kennedy Smith will be directing a staged reading of "Octagon" in spring 2022 as a part of the theatre arts program season. She expressed that she feared that this opportunity may have been rescinded if she spoke out against the committee’s decision regarding "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992."

“I didn’t want to say anything and risk losing things I had worked so hard for,” said Kennedy Smith.

Following the play’s cancellation, Noon released a statement that was communicated to theatre arts students via email regarding the situation.

Noon said that the theatre arts program “acknowledge[s] the cast’s concern that if LMU theatre arts agrees to hold ourselves to a high standard regarding [diversity, equity and inclusion] and social justice issues, then we can and must do better. Despite the difficulty of this situation, I am hopeful that these growing pains will serve to strengthen our department as we move toward continually improving in this area."

Following these events, Kennedy Smith is stepping down as Theater in Color president until Oct. 21 to focus on her mental health.

“I don’t feel like being the punching bag for the department,” said Kennedy Smith. “I don’t feel like being their token right now. I can’t be the only person they go to when there’s a diversity issue. I’m a student. I’m tired.”

Following the concerns and subsequent cancellation of "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992," “the faculty is committed to adding a greater number of student voices to the Season Selection Committee,” said Noon.

On Sept. 20, Noon sent another email to theatre arts majors writing that the department “believe[s] that the work of this committee can only be successfully accomplished by continuing to include student representation and voices,” and announced the committee would now contain three students.

The message invites theatre arts students from the organizations Alpha Psi Omega, Theater in Color and Del Rey Players, as well as all theatre majors, to apply for a spot on the selection committee.

“We definitely want to make sure that we aren’t moving in this direction again and creating an uncomfortable situation that … creates a problematic situation for any of our students,” said Noon. “We want them to get a lot out of the production and also enjoy the process. We don’t want it to be a painful process.”

When asked about his feelings regarding the play’s cancellation, Merwise believed it was the right decision. “I don't think there is any way we could have performed it in a way that would be safe and positive for audience members to come to,” he said.

On Sept. 17, Noon announced the next steps for the production in an email to LMU’s theatre arts community. The department will be unable to put on an alternate production due to “lack of time, associated costs, rights considerations and more,” according to the message.

The message includes five potential alternative events to the play, three of which focus on panel discussions about the uprisings in 1992 through the lens of multiethnic perspectives, Black resilience and hip hop culture. Another proposed event is a viewing of archived interviews at the William H. Hannon Library Archives and Special Collections about the uprisings and a discussion with former “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992” director Rivera and the relationship between the uprisings and the creation of Playwrights' Arena.

Playwrights' Arena, founded in 1992 by Rivera, is a theater “dedicated to discovering, nurturing and producing bold new works for the stage written exclusively by Los Angeles playwrights,” according to their website. The Arena’s website also states they are “first and foremost dedicated to diversity and inclusivity.”

“Our department is deeply disappointed we cannot stage another play in place of Twilight, but we are enthusiastic about these panels and workshops as an unexpected opportunity for our department to grow and learn together,” said Noon. “As the department finalizes our plans for these new events, we welcome input from members of our community as we work to resolve the issues at hand.”

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