Trage-tainment: Reflections on 20 Years of Art, Theater, and Reality TV Since the LA Riots

A scene from Katselas Theatre's remount of Twilight: Los Angeles 1992  Photo Credit: Heather Wynters
I consider the George Holliday video of Rodney King's beating and the subsequent news footage of the L.A. Riots to be my first American reality show. Instead of an elimination ceremony, ring ceremony, or final weigh-in, it was the acquittal of four police officers.

In 1992, I was 13 years old watching the riots on my home television in San Francisco with my equally-as-bewildered friends. Back then, Los Angeles was synonymous with Disneyland, bikini bodies, and Beverly Hills 90210. But those lily white images of Southern California flipped the switch when we learned that L.A. was actually a place where black men were beaten to a pulp by the law officials we had thought protected us, where no white truck driver was safe from unsolicited near-death beatings, Korean shopkeepers shot looters, and long simmering racial tensions could boil over into complete anarchy. For me and my friends, it wasn't just our impressions of Los Angeles that were changed for the worse that month, but our outlook on all of humanity. And like most reality tv, we saw more shock than we did meaningful dialogue on race relations.

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If you told me in 1992, that 20 years in the future, I'd move to Los Angeles, buy a home and live happily in that same area where gunshots and smoke filled the sky, I'd say that I'd never ever think of doing something so dumb. But twenty years ago, I never thought I'd live to see an African American president either. I also wouldn't have anticipated that President Obama's opposition would sink so low as to accuse him of being a foreigner. Or that major news outlets would give these extremely misguided "birthers" as much play as they have.

I still remember how Spike Lee's 1991 exploration of mixed race romance in "Jungle Fever" was taboo. Now the mixed race relationships of the Kardashians, Coco and Ice-T, and all the "colorblind" romances of tabloid celebrities play out ad nauseum. Of course, with pop culture romances, any deeper explorations of race are interrupted by commercial breaks. But really, do we need to still speak of race when there are more important plotlines to explore? Like whether or not Kim Kardashian's butt is real?

In 2008, I got to witness the emotional aftermath of Rodney King's notoriety when I went to drug and alcohol rehabilitation with him. Specifically, I watched King as a recovering alcoholic on VH1's "Celebrity Rehab" (where "infamy" and "celebrity" are apparently, synonymous). This same medium of reality TV that trivializes complex issues of race, revealed a raw kaleidoscopic portrait of Rodney King as a man struggling to put his life together after being thrust into the spotlight as an unlikely icon for civil rights. Celebrity Rehab, wasn't King's only stint on reality TV, King in 2009 also boxed a cop in a "Celebrity Boxing," a twisted reinterpretation of his 1991 beating -- that he was paid to participate in.

Most of the comments found on IMDB and YouTube, and the above anecdotes are why I stopped turning to mainstream media for meaningful human exchange on social issues. Instead, I go to theater.

The L.A. Riots inadvertently introduced me to the concept of the socially conscious one-woman show -- the sort of shows I have make now in my career. Before I encountered Anna Deveare Smith's text from "Twilight: Los Angeles 1992" in a Freshman English class at UCLA, I had assumed that the only theater ever produced were musicals, Neil Simon, and Shakespeare. Conducted from 175 interviews with witnesses to the L.A. Riots, Smith limited her dramatis personae from 25 to 45 of these characters depending on her performance venue. Smith's embodiment of multiple characters not only demonstrated her adeptness as a writer and performer, but became a profoundly unified spirit conveying all the emotional and racial complexities of the L.A. Riots -- all in her own body.

Last week, I watched a remount of Smith's play, not performed as a solo work, but by an multi-ethnic ensemble of actors from the Katselas Theatre Company. What could have been a simple parade of monologues was elevated into an encompassing full-scale theater work. Under Leila Vetan's skillful direction, Smith's monologues encompass all four walls of the small Los Feliz theater. Actors emerged from the seats next to me, police brutality played out in silhouette, dance action segways moved each monologue forward, and for the play's denoument, Suzanne Whang delivered a heartbreaking monologue as Mrs. Young Soon-Han. Many of the actors were costumed in black hoodies -- an obvious reference to the modern day Rodney King, Trayvon Martin.

As a post-show experiment, the cast invited the audience to stay behind for a reflection on the riots twenty years later. Almost everyone stayed. Audience members shared their memories of the riots, some of the African American cast members recounted being pulled (over without due cause) by cops, and while there may have been opinions, there were still no clear consensus to that question: "Have things gotten better?"

But that's what social dialogue should be: constantly asking the same questions that mainstream news reporters have stopped asking. It's about not settling on any finite answer because there are none. The biggest tragedy? That this kind of intimate and meaningful dialogue is happening in a theater and closes after this weekend.

For more information on the play, visit the Katselas Theatre Company's website. Read more it here.

Kristina Wong is a nationally presented solo performer, writer, actor, educator, culture jammer, and filmmaker. She'll be writing about Asian-American topics during the month of April here on SoCal Focus.

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