LOS ANGELES – For students at Ramon C. Cortines School of Visual Performing Arts, the police beating of black motorist Rodney King – and the riots that followed when white officers were acquitted – was more a history lesson than anything else. Many had never heard of the riots that left 50 people dead, more than 2,000 injured and nearly $1 billion in damages.
So teacher David Krassner decided to give his students a creative academic lesson using the school’s performance art curriculum.
As a part of the students’ final exam last year, Krassner assigned students to study and perform characters from actress/playwright Anna Deavere Smith’s play “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992.” In the award-winning play, Deavere Smith portrays about 40 characters based on her interviews of more than 300 Los Angeles residents regarding their experience of the civil unrest.
Krassner says the student portrayals were “in your face.” After seeing the project, school administrators asked Krassner to direct “Twilight” as a full school production.
For 17-year-old Michael Aghasaryan, however, what started out as a simple classroom project turned into a life lesson.
“At first, we spent a lot of time just learning about the riots,” said Aghasaryan, now a senior at the school. “There were many in the cast that didn’t even know about the riots and that part of Los Angeles’ history,”
The cast spent hours looking at the King beating, footage from the riots, and studying different people who played prominent roles like U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters and former Police Chief Daryl Gates.
After viewing the footage, Aghasaryan said the entire cast was stunned.
“Everyone was absolutely silent. I remember feeling sickened and outraged,” he said. “But at the same time, I remember feeling helpless, like I couldn’t have done anything about it.”
Aghasaryan said he used the feeling of helplessness to develop his character in the play, an anonymous talent agent who was agitated about the disruption the riot was causing. He also played the role of civil rights activist and Los Angeles Police Commissioner Stanley Sheinbaum, a man who he came to admire.
“He’s done so much. I didn’t try to portray him as an old man as much as I tried to capture the passion he had for what had happened.”
Aghasaryan recalled reading about how Sheinbaum met with gang leaders after the civil unrest and urged them to organize.
“He told them, ‘Don’t go for the violence. Let’s work together.’”
For Aghasaryan and other cast members born after the unrest, Twilight was more than an opportunity to hone their acting skills — it was a chance to understand a different perspective.
“I got to meet someone and discover something that I probably would never have otherwise,” Aghasaryan said.
The cast performed six sold-out shows and could have sold out 10 more, Krassner says.
“This wasn’t just another play that was happening,” he said. “This was a statement that was being made by our school.”