Community in Flames
Center Theatre Group staff, past and present, share their experiences during the L.A. Uprising.
The 1992 L.A. Uprising was a monumental moment in Los Angeles history, documented through Anna Deavere Smith’s play, Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. Now, thirty years later, the play makes its return to the Mark Taper Forum, where it originally premiered, to see how far we have come in the past decades—and how much further we still have to go. The events of the L.A. Uprising stretched across the County, directly impacting the lives of many Angelenos. Center Theatre Group spoke with a few of our very own staff members—past and present—about the impact of the L.A. Uprising and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 on their lives.
Kishisa Ross was on the ground interviewing subjects for Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 alongside playwright Anna Deavere Smith. She started working at CTG in Audience Development and Marketing as a Cal State LA student and continued working at the company in a variety of roles for twenty-five years. She was approached to assist Smith while at a dance workshop at Humboldt. After a phone interview, the two were off to hear the stories of 320 individuals throughout Los Angeles.
Ross was personally familiar with the racial tensions and relations explored in the play. She grew up in South Central Los Angeles, where she said she saw the tension between the Black and Korean communities in her neighborhoods. But she also knew of an exception in her own area. One Korean grocer near her home hired a Black security guard, whom everyone in the neighborhood knew and became close with. “While it seemed so small, it was huge,” she said. “There was a face between the owners and the neighborhood.”
Ross also wanted to emphasize how shocking it was to see the beating of Rodney King in 1992. “There weren’t people who could flip out a cell phone and get 20 different angles of what took place,” she said. “To be able to see the actual video [of Rodney King] was something that had never been seen before.”
Now, with the proliferation of cell phones and social media, people witness the beatings and shootings of unarmed Black men at the hands of police much more frequently. But Ross feels that this production shows how, despite this, not much has changed in victims receiving judicial justice.
“People are ready to start to see and hear and understand this play and what has been going on,” Ross said. “And that very little movement has been made.”
Kiyomi Emi has always called L.A. home.
Growing up as a fourth-generation Japanese American in the city, Emi knew quickly that there were a multitude of factors that resulted in the uprising of 1992. She cited police brutality as a “well-known issue” for the community, but what stood out most to Emi was the relationship and strain between communities in the Los Angeles area. The L.A. Uprising and events leading to it contained moments of tension between the Black, Korean, Latino and policing communities of Los Angeles, which Emi credits due to a lack of communication amongst one another.
In 1992, she was working at Center Theatre Group in the Press Department, where she and her coworkers would watch the news on a small, color TV daily. She recalls the city was “uncertain” as they awaited the verdict to come down on the Rodney King trial. When the verdict was released, Emi remembers that her coworker came running into her offices. “Kiyomi, get out of here. Right now.” she was told, leaving the offices in Downtown L.A. and traveling to her home in Cerritos.
“It was really frightening...that the city could break out into a riot.” Emi shared. “It was heartbreaking.” She was able to get home safely and began to watch the city erupt. Her brother told her he saw pillars of smoke coming out of the city as he and his girlfriend drove down the I-10 freeway on their way to Emi’s home.
As the three sat in the living room watching the news, Emi received a call late at night that the company had decided to cancel all performances for the week. She then had to call the media, press, and patrons to inform them of the cancellation. Emi recalls feeling uneasy, as though an eerie tone was blanketing the city. “You could just feel the anxiety level. The energy was deflated.” she shared.
Though the events of the L.A. Uprisings were heartbreaking for the native Angeleno, she found solace with the support of the communities around her. “Whether it was through my colleagues at work, or my family and friends...the healing [process] was knowing that [they were] there to support and solve together.” she shared.
Emi knew Twilight...would be the perfect medium for the community to heal. She was fascinated that Smith was telling this story, not from one perspective, but all the communities who were affected. She found the process groundbreaking and powerful, which were emotions that stirred within her when she first saw the show. “Twilight... was a learning piece, it was a teaching piece for us all,” she said.
Now, 30 years later, Twilight... returns to the Mark Taper Forum, and Emi hopes that audiences will come to learn about Los Angeles again. “Come with an open heart” she shared “We don’t want to repeat history again.”
Joe Carter experienced one of the most transformative events in L.A. history after moving to the city from Indiana.
In 1992, Center Theatre Group was producing its record-breaking production of The Phantom of the Opera at the Ahmanson Theatre, though the city was soon to begin to show distress. When the verdict came down on the trial, Carter watched as the city began to erupt. Carter, who was the Assistant Director of Audience Development, returned to the office from his home in Los Feliz later that night to inform audiences that the evening performance was cancelled. Carter and his coworkers were then instructed to go home and leave the offices for their safety. Driving through Echo Park past the lake, he heard gunshots in the air. “This was going to be bigger than we thought,” he recalled.”
Carter was excited that his friend, Ross, was the assistant for the playwright, Smith. At first, Carter pondered if audiences would be afraid of the topics at the core of the show, but performances started to sell out. Soon, they were seating audiences in the aisles. Carter’s brother visited from Indiana to see the show, and said “what [Smith] did in that play...made [him] understand Los Angeles in a way [he’s] never [before].”
Carter was proud of Center Theatre Group for producing the show at that time. He thinks it can still provide new insight to audiences today. “Look how far we’ve come, let’s see how far we can go,” he said with hope.
Michael Solomon felt as though he was “in a warzone in our own country.” From atop his building in Hollywood, he watched as the National Guard’s tanks rolled through the streets, soldiers emerging to traverse the streets on foot.
Solomon said the entire experience was surreal. But he also found a new sense of community in his fellow staff at Center Theatre Group. At the time, Solomon working with the Management Department at CTG. “We were living through this painful period together, people were constantly checking on each other, making sure people were safe, providing emotional support for each other in a way that hadn’t necessarily existed before,” he said.
But while he grew closer to his colleagues, the community of the city grew farther apart. “People became more afraid to interact with others who they deemed outside their comfort zone,” he said. “The feelings that led to some aspects of the uprising only intensified.”
Solomon feels like Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 captured the turmoil of the time well. But thirty years later, the same struggles persist. “The relationship between the police and many communities of color still hasn’t improved much from those days,” he said.
Ken Werther woke up in the middle of the night to flames.
Werther was at work when the verdict was announced to the public. He went home and turned on the television to stay updated with the events unfolding. As the evening wore on, the news got worse, and Werther was unsure if he would need to report to work the following morning. He was living in West Hollywood at the time and felt safe, as most of the events of the uprising were taking place in the downtown area. By 1 AM, he had turned off the T.V. and gone to bed, unsure of what the coming days were to bring.
“I was awakened by…a snap, crackle, pop sound,” he recalled. He walked over to his bedroom window and opened the blinds, where he was face to face with the flames overtaking his building. “The fire was so intense. I could feel the heat on my eyelashes.” he shared. His neighbor began to bang on the door, hoping to wake up all the residents in the building. Werther picked up his cats and evacuated the building, watching outside as his home went up in flames. Luckily, everyone in the building made it out safely.
Werther began to call his loved ones that very night, unsure of what to do next. “Within fifteen minutes, I was surrounded by friends. And we stood there, [watching] everything I owned in the world burn to a crisp.” He shared. Werther did not go to work for a few days, as he spent time recovering and recollecting himself after the fire. He visited the site of the incident wearing shorts, sandals, and a t-shirt that were given to him by his friends.
“When I [returned] to work, it was like the entire building was in the Press office to say hello and give me a hug.” He reminisced fondly on the support he received from his peers. Coworkers arrived at his office with bags of donations and even put on a benefit at the Pasadena Playhouse to support him. Among his personal items lost was his Barbra Streisand CD Collection, which Carter replaced after the fire. “He went out and got every single one, it was just unbelievable” Werther noted. For Werther, it was the support from his loved ones that helped him get through the traumatic time in his life. He soon found a new place in West Hollywood, where he has stayed to this day.
When Werther moved to Los Angeles in 1982, he first worked in television publicity. Longing to work in the theatre industry, he accepted a position in the Press Department at Center Theatre Group. When reminiscing on the events leading up to the Uprising, Werther admits he was a bit unplugged from what was happening but understood the severity of the situation. “I was aware of it; you couldn’t [ignore it] unless you were living under a rock.” he joked.
Thirty years ago, Werther hoped audiences would learn about the way we live and, and prejudices people hold. “But in terms of progression, “I don't think we've come very far at all,” he said. "I hope that audiences that see the show this time around get that there's a real problem out there.”