Some of us may remember and others may be only vaguely aware of the events surrounding the integration of Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas in 1957. It was a turbulent time in America as bigoted, white anti-integrationists openly defied the push by activists to integrate an all-white school despite the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education.
Most of us don’t know the names of the nine black students who bravely took the first steps, persevered, and who amazingly resisted the impulse to strike back at the white students and faculty who tormented and humiliated them as they attempted to get an education.
In the Trenton-based Passage Theater Company’s “Little Rock” by Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj, each of the nine has been given a distinct platform and an opportunity to be recognized as an incredibly self-empowered individual. As a group, they stuck together through thick and thin. If they collectively were able to push the restart button in an America that had stalled in its promise for civil rights for all, individually they appear to us as courageous, talented, bright, and even one resolutely humor-motivated teen.
There are lots of stories to be told so get a grip. Also know that a good helping of songs and singing has been joyously integrated into what is otherwise a harrowing, heart-breaking play about bigotry and racism. Let’s change that to a play about a group of determined teenagers as a force for change and an America being forced to change.
A series of workshops over the past six years, including being part of the 2011 New Works Festival at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto, California, has resulted in this world premiere production by Passage Theater in association with Rebel Theatrical Management LLC. An integrated cast of nine gifted performers not only portray the students but many both black and white characters as the play progresses over the tumultuous period from September, 1957, to graduation day in May of 1958.
As directed by Rebel Theater Company’s producing artistic director Maharaj (of Indo-Caribbean heritage), “Little Rock” at its core is theater of testimony that uses the words of each of the students as a bridge to the various incidents that defined their year that I would characterize as high hopes in a living hell.
But there is nothing hellish about the talent that has been brought together. As a formidable ensemble, they occupy the single stage setting designed by German Cardenas-Alaminos. An American flag and a large blackboard serve as a backdrop for two rows of wooden desks on an elevated platform flanked by coat racks.
We are introduced to the ensemble as they walk down the aisle toward the stage and sing “Eyes on the Prize,” an early indication of the superb voices that will be raised in song to punctuate moments and add perspective to various actions, many of which are disturbing and painful to witness. Each student is introduced as members of the Nine write their name on the blackboard and step forward. Touching personal narratives segue into searing and scalding confrontations. What is remarkable is how little use there is for dramatic contrivance. There is no need considering the horrific realities that these students confronted and have been recorded.
All the acting is on a high level, but somehow I can’t forget Adiagha Faizah, who as Gloria Ray says, “I feel like Anne Frank,” when she takes refuge in the school’s boiler room. As an adult, she becomes an attorney. Then there is the smug image of Jon L. Peacock who, as Governor Faubus, sent a chill down my spine when he casually remarks to Mike Wallace, “Blood will run in the streets of Little Rock.”
Why am I not surprised by the placard of a protester that read: Blame the Communist Jews”? I laughed aloud with everyone when Terrence (as played by the terrific Damian Norfleet) who, as an adult psychologist, says to a black youth, “A belt is your friend.”
It is a pleasure when Shabazz Green, who plays student Jefferson Thomas, picks up a trumpet and becomes an uncannily realized Louis Armstrong, and when Gia McGlone as Elizabeth Eckford morphs into Lena Horne. What works especially well is to see how beautifully Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt, Senator Richard Gephardt, Mike Wallace, Governor Faubus, Thurgood Marshall, and others have been portrayed and embedded into the play and into the many poignant and inspiring stories being told.
On the downside, the play is much too long: nearly three hours with so much of it, as it is presumably necessary, to be dedicated to detailing the more shame-filled series of incidents in our country’s recent history. Would that the memories of the Little Rock Nine were confined to the past and not so indelibly affixed to the present. At one point the students sit as a group and ponder the possibility of a black man ever becoming the president. How wonderful that all nine were alive to know the answer.
Little Rock: An American Play, Passage Theater at the Mill Hill Playhouse, 205 East Front Street, Trenton. Thursday through Saturday, 8 p.m., Sunday at 3 p.m., through Sunday, October 26. $30 to $35. 609-392-0766 or www.passagetheatre.org.