ANNA DEAVERE SMITH DREAMS A LOT WHEN SHE SLEEPS. SHE seems to like the nightmares best. "I have hideous ones sometimes—awful, awful things," she says. "Once I was in a hospital room sitting cross-legged on the floor, and this Japanese man came out of surgery with a rectangular incision in his head. I was watching him struggling to come into consciousness, knowing something horrible had just happened." The memory brings a strange excitement to her eyes. "These dreams tell me, oh, you're really working now. You're getting ready to be very, very creative."

Now Smith has taken on the collective nightmare of an entire city and turned it into an extraordinary night at the theater. Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 chronicles the Rodney King case, from King's brutal beating by members of the LAPD to the city wide riots and the convictions last April of two officers in federal court. What gives Smith's one-woman show its haunting power is how she put it together. The 42-year-old actress and associate professor of drama at Stanford spent nine months scouring the city, interviewing more than 175 people. She selected 26 of them, speaking their words verbatim onstage—an ethnic panorama of characters including former L.A. Police Chief Daryl Gates, a black gang leader and a Panamanian woman whose fetus took a stray bullet in the elbow and survived.

Twilight, which opened at the Mark Taper Forum in L.A. and will travel to Princeton, N.J., in October and later to New York City, has drawn plenty of attention this summer (Newsweek called it "an American masterpiece"). Says Twilight's, director, Emily Mann: "This is one of the most sophisticated discourses on race in the '90s. It's a collision of so many different points of view." Or, as Smith puts it: "Nobody comes first, and nobody has the most to say."

For the lithe, 5'9" actress—whose seriousness is leavened by a chipmunk smile—fame has come suddenly after 10 years in the boondocks of performance art. Twilight is the 14th installment of a series begun in 1983 called On the Road: A Search for American Character, in which she developed her techniques of interviewing and portraying real people. "I don't talk a lot when I interview," says Smith. "My job is to get out of the way. Each person has a literature inside them. But when people lose language, when they have to experiment with putting their thoughts together on the spot—that's what I love most. That's where character lives."

But it wasn't until her last show, Fires in the Mirror, about the 1991 racial uprisings between blacks and Hasidic Jews in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, that Smith caught fire herself. Stepping into the skins of such figures as Rev. Al Sharpton and a Jewish housewife, Smith says she found herself playing to "shockingly unexpected" acclaim when the piece ran at the Joseph Papp Public Theater in New York City and later on PBS.

Not everyone was willing to talk to Smith for Twilight; the rapper Sister Souljah dismissed her as "the sister who wants to take my words." But Smith's warmth worked most of the lime. "There are a tremendous number of racial secrets people don't tell outside their own group, but Anna can get people to reveal some of them—very ugly or intimate or powerful things," says Elizabeth Alexander, 31, a Chicago writer and an assistant on Twilight. "Something about Anna gives them permission to keep going, to keep crossing boundaries."

Smith grew up the eldest of five children in a black middle-class neighborhood in Baltimore, where her father worked in the tea and coffee business and her mother was an elementary school principal. "There was segregation in Baltimore then," says Smith, whose light skin sometimes put her right on the color line. "I wasn't allowed to try on clothes in certain department stores. I remember one saleslady saying to my mother, 'She looks okay. I'll let her sneak in.' "

After graduating from Pennsylvania's Beaver College in 1971, Smith lit out for San Francisco, where she discovered the joys of "disassembling and reassembling a personality" in an acting class at the American Conservatory Theater. She received a master's degree there and went to New York City—where she found many doors closed, with furniture piled against them. "An agent said this outrageous thing," recalls Smith. "She said, 'I can't send you out because I don't want to antagonize my clients. You don't look like anything.' "

Smith realized she would have to carve her career outside the mainstream. While leaching acting at Carnegie-Mellon in Pittsburgh, she saw Sophia Loren on The Tonight Show in 1979 and was struck by her regal poise. ("She was talking about her jewels being stolen, and nobody was laughing, but she didn't care. She was sitting there in complete control of herself.") Smith began transcribing talk-show interviews of famous people for her students to perform. "It wasn't about the success of doing a mimicry of Katharine Hepburn," she says. "The point is, if you talk and sit like her, can you feel like her?" Soon Smith was sending students out to interview ordinary-people and recreate them in class—and has applied the process to her work at Stanford, where she has taught since 1990.

Preparing her own characters, Smith's method is always the same. She begins by listening to the tapes of her subjects again and again. "I often start lying down in a very relaxed position. I want to see what impact the words have on my body. Material that hits me viscerally is likely to hit the audience too." She later adds physical idiosyncrasies, often working from photos of her subjects. "She absorbs a person," says Mann. "It's almost eerie. The bones in her face change."

Still, there's a lurking question here: Does being a black woman—in particular a light-skinned black woman—give Smith a kind of license to perform characters that others might not have? For example, could a white man get away with doing her show? "My guess is it's likely that a white person would take more heat for doing blacks. My guess is a man would seem funnier doing women than I seem doing men," she says. "As for being light-skinned...it's possible that very painful thing the agent said to me, that I didn't look like anything, has ironically made me available to look like other things."

Smith has antagonized some subjects, but most have cheered her work. Says Theresa Allison, 52, a Los Angeles community organizer: "I know she was portraying me, but I saw through my tears so many other mothers in pain—mothers whose children are turning into animals because they live in South Central. Anna did some of my speaking for me. She's the most sensational person, somebody from another city who cared."

Smith's mania for work has taken its toll. Despite her regimen of swimming and a strict vegetarian diet, she collapsed from exhaustion in her hotel lobby during the preparation for Twilight. She says she has no time for a personal life—she has never been married—or any outside interests. "It's very sad. NBC's new magazine show Now wanted to shoot scenes of me relaxing, and we all just laughed." Smith is currently rehearsing a project with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and has even done a little acting work of the kind that once eluded her, including small parts in Ivan Reitman's Dave and Jonathan Demme's upcoming Philadelphia.

But she is unlikely to abandon her ruling passion—exploring racial identity in America. "Racism has been for everyone like a horrible, tragic car crash, and we've all been heavily sedated from it," she says. "If we don't come into consciousness of this tragedy, there's going to be a violent awakening we don't want. The question is, can we wake up?"