Teens take on timely issue of race in unique play

| February 15, 2016 | 0 Comments


Students from Cretin-Derham Hall High School in St. Paul are performing "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992," a theatrical documentary that uses the verbatim words of people interviewed after the initial trial of four police officers acquitted them of wrong doing in the videotaped beating of Rodney King, resulting in six days of rioting and looting.

Students from Cretin-Derham Hall High School in St. Paul are performing “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,” a theatrical documentary that uses the verbatim words of people interviewed after the initial trial of four police officers acquitted them of wrong doing in the videotaped beating of Rodney King, resulting in six days of rioting and looting. Photo courtesy of Cretin-Derham Hall

Voices of real people caught up in the racial conflict surrounding the riot-causing Rodney King verdict come alive in the voices of teenagers in a unique theatrical production whose dialogue appears to be echoed by recent racially charged events both locally and across the United States.

twilight“Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,” underway at Cretin-Derham Hall High School in St. Paul Feb. 16 through Feb. 21, is documentary theater, a series of authentic monologues of people involved 24 years ago.

Their words were captured verbatim by playwright Anna Deavere Smith. What led to the rioting at the time was the verdict of the initial trial, in which white police officers were acquitted of assault with a deadly weapon and use of excessive force despite video evidence that police repeatedly used batons to beat King, a black man, after a high-speed chase.

The staging by the theater department of Cretin-Derham Hall features more than 25 students performing the roles from the transcripts, voices that include jurors, witnesses, LA residents, the police chief, a congresswoman and others.

Theater teacher and director Ann Frances Gregg said she chose the play because of its tie-ins to similar contemporary incidents.

“I knew the message of the show, along with the diverse range of characters, would attract our students,” Gregg said. Cast and crew total approximately 50.

The play is being staged in the intimate setting of CDH’s Black Box Theater, which will hold only 121 seats for this production.

Videotape of the actual beating, which at the time aired on TV news around the world, is projected on the floor of the darkened stage as the play opens.

‘It pulled at my heartstrings’

Katie Schearer was among a handful of students involved in the play who had never heard about Rodney King or the aftermath of the police trial.

Nicholas Burns, on the other hand, said he had watched a documentary about the case and his family had discussed it. “I was exposed to it early on,” Burns said.

The show touched students on an emotional level, something they expect their audience will realize as well.

“You feel what these people have gone through,” Sara Gallaher said.

“It pulled at my heart strings,” added Dorothy Register, who plays Rodney King’s aunt. “Playing Angela King breaks my heart. I kept thinking how [Rodney King’s beating] could be my baby nephew someday.”

Max Pinkerton pointed out that the play offers a lot of different viewpoints. “There’s no one white, black or Latino viewpoint,” he said. “Everybody’s going to have their own perspective.”

Tie-ins to today

Cast and crew readily connected the play to allegations in recent times of police abuse of minorities that have made headlines and spawned the Black Lives Matter movement.

“History repeats itself,” Burns said.

Grace Banks recalled a section toward the end of the play that struck a chord.

“One of the characters said this type of stereotyping won’t be happening 20 years from now,” she said. “It’s 20 years plus later and it’s happening. We all got chills.”

Jack Hallman plays a juror who is terribly conflicted by a decision he wishes he didn’t have to make.

“There’s a line where he says, ‘Why do I have to pick a side?’ ” and Hallman found similarities with current expectations, feeling pressured to choose whether to support Black Lives Matter or to side with the police, and there being no middle ground.

Register, too, lamented that history seemed to be repeating itself. “If we don’t change it, it’s never going to change,” she said. “What hurts is that this is the reality we live with.”

Sparking conversation

Julia Diaz said being involved in “Twilight” opened her eyes to the need for conversations about race to happen more frequently. “People in the show actually talk about race, and I think our putting on this show is something that was meant to be,” Diaz said.

Her comments triggered several students to offer their personal perceptions of how race is or is not openly discussed.

Maia Fernandez said performing this documentary “is going to bring an opening of minds.”

To that end, following each performance, a “debriefing” session will be held in which members of the play and the audience can explore the topic beyond the production, Gregg noted.

Those debriefings will follow the Courageous Conversations Protocol, which invites discussions about dealing with race on the emotional, intellectual, moral and social levels using agreed upon methods and conditions.

Kathryn Stafford saw it appropriate that a Catholic school like CDH present a controversial production like “Twilight.”

“The Catholic Church and what it teaches about Jesus is all about justice — he’s on the side of the oppressed,” she said. “If there’s an organization that should advocate for justice, it should be the Catholic Church.”

Mona Passman, Cretin-Derham Hall principal, took pride that the school took on the show.

“Through theater, we have found yet another unique way to bring a complex issue like race relations into focus for our community,” Passman noted.

“This is particularly valuable because it is based on factual, authentic voices from history —shared from many, many diverse perspectives. All have value. What a powerful, and respectful way to challenge our collective thinking as it relates to our faith and our understanding of current events.”

From the director:

“The timing of Black History Month was actually coincidental,” Cretin-Derham Hall theater teacher and director Ann Frances Gregg wrote in an email reply to a question from The Catholic Spirit.

“As an educator, I applaud the intent of particular months, however, I truly believe the representation of historic and current-day people of color and of women should be incorporated year-round in our programming.

“I chose the play as the next step in a line of past shows our department has done (“The Bluest Eye,” “Hairspray,” “Check the Appropriate Box,” and “Romeo & Juliet” set in 1963 Verona, Mississippi), and to honor the voices of those represented by (Anna) Deavere Smith’s play, as well as to honor our own CDH students and their unheard voices.

This show isn’t only a black and white dialogue. There are voices from the Korean community, the Mexican community, and the Latin-American community as well. The play reminds us that race is more than black and white, and that there are a multitude of voices that need to be heard in this courageous conversation.”

Rodney King: The facts

Captured after a high-speed chase, Rodney King was beaten by two Los Angeles police officers while two other police officers watched, videotape evidence shows.

See the video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sb1WywIpUtY.

Four officers were charged with assault with a deadly weapon and use of excessive force. Three were acquitted of all charges. The jury acquitted the fourth of assault with a deadly weapon but failed to reach a verdict on the use of excessive force. Six days of rioting and looting ensued in which 53 people were killed, more than 2,000 were injured and damage estimated near $1 billion.

The acquittals led to the federal government obtaining grand jury indictments for violations of King’s civil rights, and in a 1993 federal district court trial, two of the officers were found guilty and imprisoned. The other two were acquitted again.

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