MiddleLab: Novel Readings in South LA

February 23, 2017

By Jacqueline Barrios 

Middlemarch opening tableau: 19th-century cast of characters meets 21st-century readers in an originally choreographed piece of dance theater. Photos by Karla Paredes. For more MiddleLab photographs and footage view the Flickr album.

“Once she learned who she was, that helped her glorify other people's lives,” asserted Nathaniel Nevels, 17, South Los Angeles teen, student at Foshay Learning Center and USC NAI scholar. His role model? The answer might surprise you—a protagonist of a 900-page novel George Eliot penned almost a hundred fifty years ago—Dorothea Brooke.  

What did this fictional being have in common with a young urban male of our century? “She overcame a situation didn't fully understand—and went through an experience to find herself,”  explains Nathaniel. 

This scene about scientific passion

(L-R) This scene about scientific passion features Dr. Tertius Lydgate played by Nayib A. and Rev. Farebrother played by Sergio L., NAI seniors and AP English Literature students.

Nathaniel is a student in AP English literature at Foshay Learning Center in South LA and a scholar with the USC Neighborhood Academic Initiative. Just last month, the seniors mounted a rare cultural event: a MiddleLab Festival and two performances of a full-length theatrical adaptation of Middlemarch, directed by their AP English teacher, Jacqueline Barrios and co-director, Paul David Story. The seniors casted and crewed these evening shows presenting live theatrical scenes, custom-made period costumes and original choreography that brought the novel to life.  

Dorthea's Quest

Dorothea’s Quest: Student dancers perform original choreography set to Coldplay's "Paradise.” Inspired by the novel’s protagonist, movement here represents the concepts of flight and repression.

The night featured the youth of South LA as actors, dancers, artists, event coordinators, and even more crucially, the novel’s newest literary scholars. Nathaniel and his fellow seniors studied the novel through MiddleLab—a public humanities project based on George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1872-4) linking the Dickens Project (one of the oldest, and largest humanities multi-campus research unit of the University of California) and the seniors of USC NAI (a college access program for low-income first generation youth in South LA). Launching with a six-hour reading marathon in late September, MiddleLab produced a series of events in the 2016-2017 school year sparking learning through innovative teaching about the novel. MiddleLab sought to increase the benefits of the partnership between the Dickens Project and NAI to the public by creating nodes of exchange between South LA seniors with the academic community: digital mini-lectures rebranded as “commercials”, an interactive website (middlelab.uscnaitheater.me), field-trip classroom swaps with undergraduate English courses here at USC and UCLA, art residencies with hip-hop and modern dance companies. 

Petri dish artwork

Petri dish art inspired by the novel: Mixed media art work nspired by characters, themes and topics and the novel and scientific imagery (micrographs, neurons, chemical structures, bacteria, fungal spores etc)

As the highlight of MiddleLab, the shows culminated a four day festival at the end of January when Foshay became the center of South LA’s own local public humanities “universe.” Dickens Project visitors sipped tea alongside middle-school and high school students as a hybrid community of readers coalesced around George Eliot’s work. Seniors became the novel’s experts—speakers at our own mini-conference based on papers they authored, hosts of a Grand Tea (served with provocative conversation-starter doilies), artists of a Petri-Dish Art Exhibit and inventors of teaching projects on our topics: the entanglement of lives lived in community, the complexity of marriage and gender expectations, the quest for knowledge and truth. These ideas were translated into collaborative murals, thick-mapping, Snapchat campaigns, the “Key to All Mythologies” installation, theatricalized teas with the cast and choreographic labs.  

Dorthea in Rome

Framing Dorothea: Dancers and cast reinterpret the “Rome” scene in the novel in this sequence of the Middlemarch production. (L-R) Dancer 1, Samantha S., Dorothea played by Ashley N., Dancer 2, Vanessa Z.

USC Professor Devin Griffiths and Dickens Project faculty relates that "MiddleLab really exemplifies how scholarship and the study of literature relates to a larger community.”  Professor Griffiths’ undergraduate students in his Fall course “Radical Victorians” took part in MiddleLab by mentoring the next generation of Middlemarch’s  scholars. Across town, UCLA Professor Jonathan Grossman paired UCLA seniors in his Honors Capstone Seminar (studying what else? Middlemarch) with the NAI seniors, then invited the NAI students to hear their higher-ed counterparts deliver paper presentations at their first-ever academic conference at UCLA. Other Dickens Project faculty, graduate students and community members became “reading buddies”, sent in video “commercials” about the novel and accompanied the NAI seniors on their journey as their intellectual friends. “I really feel like MiddleLab gives me the opportunity to connect to a larger community and explore how the literature I study resonates beyond the page. It's a treasure and I feel really lucky to have been involved--can't wait to see how this collaboration develops,” said Professor Griffiths. 

MiddleLab is the newest project to come from the partnership between USC NAI and the Dickens Project. Since 2010, NAI seniors annually study the long-form 19th-century novel as part of their curriculum: Our Mutual Friend, Dombey and Son, and this year’s election, Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life. At the end of their study, seniors write essays for submission to a scholarship contest that grants four winners the chance to represent their community at the annual summer Dickens Universe in UC Santa Cruz.  

See Also