Los Angeles is a city with quite a reputation. Depending on whom you ask, L.A. is the land of perpetual sunshine and carefree living or a concrete jungle of congested freeways and unrelenting smog. From the outside, people may be tempted to view Los Angeles as a monolith, however most Angelenos know better.
How will you bring Los Angeles history and contemporary issues into your classroom this year?
According to the Los Angeles Times mapping project, there are 16 "regions" in Los Angeles and 116 distinct "neighborhoods" in the city. Founded in 1781, Los Angeles has never had a single story nor a single history. One doesn't have to look far to find examples of our city's conflicted identity or it's trouble with negotiating the answer to such questions as,"Who does this city belong to and whose interests will prevail? Who has the right to be heard? Included? Acknowledged? Protected?" Several times in our city's history, acts of mob violence forced the examination of such questions.
One of these instances was today.
Early in the morning on August 2nd, 1942, the murder of Jose Diaz in Sleepy Lagoon was discovered, launching a round-up of 600 youth, primarily Mexican-American "Zoot-Suiters," and instigating the sequence of events which led to the Zoot Suit Riots.
Whenever one of these L.A. anniversaries passes, I think about how far we've come as a city and how far we've yet to go. Has Los Angeles sufficiently widened its circle of obligation to include all of its residents, or are there still wide swaths of people who are marginalized and ignored?
For 20 years, I have taught not just about the violence that erupted during the 1992 Riots but also the conditions that precipitated it. If you lived in the city during that time, you realize that the history of the riots is complex and that the reactions to both the verdicts and the violence that followed cannot be neatly categorized. One resource that has always proved helpful in teaching the nuances of this history is Anna Deavere Smith's Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992.
Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 is the one- woman play Smith created using verbatim portrayals of the many victims, eyewitnesses, bystanders, and even perpetrators she interviewed in the aftermath of the L.A. Riots. This collection of personal stories provides insight into the complex perspectives, emotions, and different realities experienced by a wide range of people in the city at that time. The play is told as a series of monologues, thus the "characters" never interact, and yet we are left with a profound understanding that everyone's story on stage is interconnected. And that as residents of this city, we can grasp that the story line also runs through us.
Do you use Twilight Los Angeles in your classroom? If you haven't or haven't lately, you may wonder if teaching Twilight Los Angeles is still relevant in this day and age, or maybe you worry that it won't be the best use of classroom time with all the other topics you've got to cover. Perhaps I can encourage you to reconsider.
In 2012, my Cultural Diversity class decided to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the L.A. Riots by putting on our own production of Twilight: Los Angeles. Never mind that almost all of the students in class lacked acting experience, that we didn't have a budget, and that we didn't have a performance space. After reading and watching Twilight Los Angeles and working their way through Facing History's entire Twilight Los Angeles study guide, my senior students decided that their parting gift to the school would be the sharing of this important history with their classmates. At the time, I was in conversation with a teacher at Social Justice Leadership Academy who was also using Twilight Los Angeles with her classes, and I invited her to bring her students on campus to watch our student production, have lunch together, and engage in a larger conversation about what the events of 1992 meant.
We worked on Twilight Los Angeles for about a month. Day after day, the students practiced lines, watched the movie version of the play over and over, and worked out stage directions. We didn't have a budget so everyone raided closets at home to create the necessary costumes. The students "borrowed" objects from around the campus to use as props while the school's drama department lent us their portable stage. As both a stage background and at times a focus point, the students created a Prezi to project on a large backdrop screen. The students included video clips of the Rodney King and Reginald Denny beatings, news footage from the riots, statistics about Los Angeles in 1992, and photographs of important people in the play such as police chief Daryl Gates and representative Maxine Waters.
What amazed me about this whole project is just how it transformed my class. As the students memorized the lines, they began to feel connected to the characters and they became fully invested in relaying each story as truthfully and authentically as possible. Students also began to see themselves in the characters and expressed a deep empathy for people in the play who had initially confused and perplexed them. And most powerful of all, the students began to see themselves as actors. Not actors in the sense of dramatists or Thespians, but rather "agents of change" and people with the ability to make a difference.
I have often wondered if there was any lasting impact for the students in having done this project, so this year I decided to reach out to some of my former students from the class of 2012, now in college, and ask what stayed with them from reading and performing Twilight Los Angeles. Here's what they had to say:
"I gained... an understanding of the riots themselves, that there is no black and white way to approach them... there was no way everyone was going to be on the same page.... Some thought the rioters were overreacting while others empathized with them... I think what people fail to see is that when an oppressed population doesn't have their foot in the doors where change can be made and fought for peacefully, the next best approach is to revolt.
As cheesy as it may sound, my own generation, [we] are the future of our world, and moving forward as a society will always depend on both present and future leaders.
Twilight L.A. definitely helped me... empathize a lot more with both the people who participated in the riots and those who were affected by them. Having to memorize an entire monologue, which in itself was only a sliver of light into a world of someone's thoughts and emotions, forced me to really think about the frustration and pain behind the riots and internalize it... I'm not an actress, so I had to work far outside my comfort zone to do justice to someone else's memoir... just out of respect. It's one thing to watch [the film] and resonate silently and another to portray it yourself to the point that you can impact others..."-- Amy Rodriguez.
I was a senior in high school and it was the first time I had learned about or discussed the L.A. Riots in a classroom setting. I thought that was kind of messed up, considering what a huge part of local/state history it was. Doing Twilight L.A. brought a lot of perspectives into the conversation and felt more personal than if we had just studied it straight. I had heard about the Riots from my parents, but talking about it in class really gave me a wider sense of what happened and about the nature of Los Angeles in general."-- Natalie Case
"Prior to Twilight L.A., I had considered the L.A. Riots a thing of the past that explained the unused and dilapidated buildings in the Crenshaw district. I learned, however, that the Riots were a result of racial tensions that had reached a boiling point... moreover, the race-based spatial layout of the city (which is still intact today) only exacerbated the situation!.. [Twilight L.A. showed] me the potency and lethality of structural racism, and has influenced me to further explore this in academia."-- Hassani Scott
"Initially, I was angry at Los Angeles, my home, for neglecting the civil rights of my people. Simultaneously, I was ashamed of my people, for what they had done to their own home. I soon realized that those who participated in the Riots did not see Los Angeles as their home. Los Angeles had ignored beckons for justice and equality... theTwilight L.A. project gave me a deeper understanding of what it meant to be a person of color in a city struggling to acknowledge the civil rights of all people.
In 2013, I faced a situation [that reminded me of ] the L.A. Riots. The LAPD sent 79 officers, armed in riot gear, to shut down a USC party... occupied by predominantly African American students. I heard accounts of students being man-handled and harassed... and many students were in fear, in anger, and in tears...
The next morning as I was journaling, I thought, is this my city? Is this how my people are treated in my home? I couldn't interpret what to do with feeling so angry and so sad. I began to remember what I had learned in my Cultural Diversity class. Twilight Los Angeles taught me to teach other people, not only by example, but with my own words. The saying goes that actions speak louder than words. This play showed me how people are driven to speak with their actions when their words are ignored... I must teach by example but I should always remember that my words have power. Authors such as Anna Deavere Smith remind me to use this power in my words and in my actions. Those who meet me will come across a person that refuses to accept discrimination, refuses to be ignored, and refuses to be perceived as violent, angry, or ignorant."-- Kenya Collins
- Watch a the trailer of the movie version ofTwilight: Los Angeles here
- While available, click here to watch the film on PBS' website.
- Read Anna Deavere Smith's essay Shades of Loss, her reflection on the purpose of Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 here
Have you ever taught Twilight Los Angeles? If so, what was your experience? How else are you thinking about bringing Los Angeles into your classroom this year?