Camden Students to Perform “To Kill a Mockingbird” Mock Trial

By Tom McLaughlin

More than 50 years since it was first published, Harper Lee’s timeless novel To Kill a Mockingbird continues to serve as a touchstone for exploring issues of racial inequality in the United States and the U.S. legal system.

“Because of events that are still happening in our country today, this book continues to resonate with people for its ability to draw attention to social disparities,” says Miranda Powell, program assistant for arts education and community arts for the Rutgers–Camden Center for the Arts (RCCA).

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Powell credits the students’ commitment and enthusiasm that have made the project possible.

These critical, social issues will now be front and center as students in the Camden Adolescents Striving for Achievement (CASA) afterschool program – an initiative under the auspices of Guadalupe Family Services in Camden – bring the book’s infamous criminal trial to life, performing a mock trial under guidance from the Rutgers–Camden arts center.

The performance will be held at 5 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 24, in Courtroom C3 of the U.S. District Courthouse, located at Fourth and Cooper Sts. in Camden. For more information, contact Powell at (856) 225-6202 or miranda.powell@rutgers.edu.

The mock trial is one of several free, public events being held throughout the fall as part of the Rutgers center’s participation in The Big Read for the sixth consecutive year. The two-month celebration also features a lecture series, performances, art-installation sites, storytelling workshops, and more.

“With The Big Read at the fore, this project connects youth to the community and gives them an invaluable opportunity to develop a range of transferrable skills,” says Angel Osorio, a part-time lecturer of urban studies at Rutgers–Camden and a member of the RCCA Arts Advisory Council, who is co-coordinating and leading the project. “It also introduces them to the legal process, which could spark their interests in a career in the criminal-justice field.”

Beginning in the early fall, a group of 10 CASA students who volunteered to participate in the project were asked to read the novel and become well versed in the book’s storyline, themes, and subject matter.

The students were soon split into two groups – the prosecution and the defense – and given specific roles. They were then responsible for handling every facet of the production process, from writing and rehearsing the script – including opening and closing statements, and questions for the witnesses – to choosing their costumes, and staging the performance.

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Osorio goes over the script with the participating CASA students.

“We’ve really seen them start to put their own spin on things, while staying true to the script,” says Osorio, who gained extensive experience conducting mock trials as the community justice director for the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office. “You can see how they really feel about certain characters and how they express the powerful emotions that are in the novel. Conceptually, this project has created a perfect and fluid synergy between the law and the arts.”

In addition to CASA project coordinators Tim Gallagher and Lourdes Gonzalez, the students practiced the performance with seasoned law-enforcement professionals, including Mary Alison Albright, former chief prosecutor of the Homicide unit for the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office, and Marty Devlin, a retired veteran homicide investigator and commanding officer for the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office, and the current lead consultant for the Camden County Police Department’s cold case squad.

Powell credits the students’ commitment and enthusiasm that have made the project possible.

“It says a lot about them that they would dedicate 10 weeks of their afterschool lives and stay so committed to an intensive project like this,” she says.

The Rutgers–Camden Center for the Arts was once again named a grantee of The Big Read thanks to a $15,500 National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant. The center is one of only two organizations from New Jersey to be selected for the current year, and one of only 75 organizations to earn the nod nationwide. For more information about The Big Read, please visit NEABigRead.org.

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