Burning Up the Book : South LA Teen’s Production on Dickens Tells the Tale of Two Riots
“A riot is the voice of the unheard” Maxine Waters had said, about the most destructive civil disturbances in US history, the LA uprising of 1992. From its epicenter more than 25 years later, South LA teens unmute the history of their neighborhood through an unlikely instrument: a book. Centering on the story of an intellectually disabled boy and his talkative pet raven, the novel, Barnaby Rudge was written by their British creator Charles Dickens, who depicts the destruction of London in 1780 from the blended perspectives of the inhabitants of the city. The students, seniors at Foshay Learning Center, are taking their nineteenth century literature lesson out of the classroom and onto the streets, the stage and on the air—dropping an album, Never Say Die, A Sonic Tribute to the LA 1992 Rebellion that uses sonic field recordings to interpret the link between the histories of uprising in two cities, while premiering their show at the beginning of February. The show (2 nights, February 1/2, 6PM) is a theatrical and dance adaptation of the Dickensian story put up for their community and the public, and will be held at their South LA campus, Foshay Learning Center, located a few blocks away from the businesses, homes, avenues and intersections that sustained some of the worst damages of the 1992 events.
The album and production culminate an immersive study of the novel in students’ AP English Literature class, the latest of “LitLabs,” interdisciplinary and engaged teaching projects directed and taught by Jacqueline Barrios, their teacher. Students are scholars with University of Southern California’s Neighborhood Academic Initiative (NAI) program, a college pathway aimed at preparing first-generation students for higher education. NAI partners with the Dickens Project to support each LitLab journey, which guides students through the seemingly foreign world of the 19th century novel by assembling a cast of fellow travelers who weave a unique pedagogical experience for students to build bridges between their world and the world of Dickens. From literary scholars to resident dance artists, from Dickens enthusiasts to researchers in urbanism and architecture, from undergraduates to retirees—the cast of characters in the story of their learning mirrors the elaborate ones within the novels themselves.
The students’ album will officially “drop” in its own exhibition, LA 1992/London 1780: Sounding Out A Crowd, where a map installation and listening panels will contextualize and showcase the eleven original “singles” that students composed using an archive of found sounds from South LA and lyrics they wrote ala Dickens, riffing particularly off of his syntactic habit of writing long catalogs or lists, in his multi-perspectival descriptions of the Gordon riots. The singles represent students’ reworking of Dickens’ treatment of mob violence, an account that complicates the innocence or guilt of any single actor or point of view. Supported by UCLA’s Urban Humanities Initiative, a graduate research program blending architecture, urban planning and humanities methods, the album and the exhibition as a whole orchestrates an experience of this sonic documentary of student learning and the neighborhood. Visitors will see how students blended the novel’s storytelling with an experimental one in which they operate traditional literary tools alongside urban humanistic ones: field work, sound scavenging, digital editing, urban research, interviews and mental mapping.
The production itself is an adaptation that interlaces theatrical scenes inspired by characters and situations in the novel with original choreography and live music to draw out symbolic connections to concepts and emotions that the riots share: the intertwining of individuals lives with forces beyond their control, the blurring of choice and influence in mass movements, the tragedy and the compassion evident in even the most degraded and violent of circumstances. The dance component, generated in choreographic labs led by guest artist, Samad Raheem Guerra from Contra Tiempo, a LA-based urban Latin dance company, exemplifies another strand of the performing arts in LitLabs, where students produce embodied forms of reading, a pedagogical goal supported by an arts grant from Tony Bennett and Susan Benedetto’s arts education program, Exploring the Arts.
LitLab’s key partner, the Dickens Project, is the largest multi-campus consortium on Victorian studies in the world. Since 2010, the Dickens Project supports NAI seniors in these annual studies of the long-form 19th century novel as part of their AP English literary curriculum through, and welcomes up to four of them to UC Santa Cruz in the summer to their conference, the Dickens Universe. Selected by penning winning essays about the novel, these four become the youngest attendees at the academic and literary gathering that yearly draws graduate students and professors and Dickens enthusiasts from the 45 campuses of the consortium and the general public.
Dickens Project members directly impact students’ reading by volunteering to be “reading buddies,” professors from 19th century English departments across the US as well as long-time lovers of Dickens and Victorian literature who showed up to read at the students’ 6-hour reading marathon, or sent “commercials”—short filmed weekly talks—to the high school students as they made their way through the 700-page tome. USC professor of English, Devin Griffiths, came to the students class to lecture while two of his honors undergraduate students led close-reading workshops on key passages. This particular endeavor merged the goals of LitLabs with USC’s flagship service learning program, Joint Educational Partnership (JEP).
This year’s first reading buddy, professor of English at the University of York John Bowen, happens to also be the editor of students’ Penguin editions. The current president of the Dickens Fellowship, Bowen addressed the students directly at the start of their study, and responded to each of their posted questions at the start of their reading. He had this to say about the teaching the novel: ”Rioters on the streets, and a city in flames. Mob rule or justified popular anger? Dickens’s great novel of riot, revolution and looting has never looked more contemporary than it does today.” Through Dickens, South LA students invite us to wonder, as Bowen asks, “Is it 1780, 1992 or 2019?”
In fact, when asked about how he connected to Barnaby Rudge, AP literature student Jonathan Antonio remarked that one of the novel’s main ideas is “what it means to be a part of something bigger.” Jonathan went on to clarify, “During my last two years of high school, two historical movements took took place: the nationwide student walkouts in response to the Parkland Shooting, and the UTLA strike against LAUSD as a result of the lack of support it offered to its teachers and students. The Gordon Riots, although having stood against the rights of a religious group, created a movement amongst those of lower socioeconomic classes in London 1780 that created a movement and a voice for others to hear. Overall, the novel helped me see the power of numbers in any circumstance.”