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Where Hope Is
As part of my exploration of local theaters' outreach to young audiences, I attended a teacher training session at Berkeley Repertory's Theater Educates and Motivates program, presented in conjunction with Anna Deavere Smith's Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. The fact that 70 teachers and some students were willing to schlep to the Rep on a rainy Saturday at 8:30 a.m. suggested an extraordinary enthusiasm on their part. The program was remarkable. Erna Smith, chair of San Francisco State University's journalism department, analyzed TV coverage of the Rodney King beating and the riots that followed the acquittal of his attackers. Smith explained that TV news is especially interested in "events rather than process, in violent confrontation and dramatic action. The big emotions on TV are rage and anger. TV's focus on action shapes our perceptions of events." Following a lively discussion, Sharon Ott, artistic director of Berkeley Rep and director of Twilight, spoke on the rewards and tribulations of directing a one-person show. The program was exhilarating, a chance for teachers to prepare themselves and their students for Twilight.

The following week, I attended a matinee that included a mix of students and subscribers. Age, race, and class were mixed as well. The event was electrifying, terrifying, disheartening. Many black students laughed at the accents of the Asian characters, and most disturbing, laughed and cheered at a video of the Reginald Denny beating. The tension in the theater was palpable. "What was it like onstage in front of that audience?" I later asked Anna Deavere Smith. She replied with high energy and a focused intensity: "It concerns me. The students silenced the adults. I could feel the adult audience becoming smaller and smaller." Smith wondered whether to say something from the stage, but at the same time she didn't want to change the experience of the audience. "How do we invite and involve young people into our work? We must, but it's not easy." I told Smith that the older black women sitting next to me were furious at the misbehavior of the students. Where are their teachers? they asked. Smith's response was immediate: " 'Where are their teachers?' We are all their teachers. When I was a kid, everybody was my teacher. What's happened to that sense of community?" Given the disparate reactions of the audience to the beatings, is there any hope that we can find commonality? "Cornel West is in the piece to provide catharsis and laughter. He looks at the evidence and says things don't look so good. He doesn't say where hope is, but he says it exists. We have to go beyond the evidence to create new possibilities. I only hope that some people felt more than discouraged in response to Twilight; I hope they felt the need for action."

By Deborah Peifer

 
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