Ascending the steps of Little Rock’s Central High School, Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj experienced what he immediately recognized as “sankofa” — a term that derives of the Akan language of Ghana and means “to reach back.” Culturally, it means to feel the presence of your ancestors and to be in spiritual touch with your heritage.
Maharaj, an American of Indo-Caribbean and African descent, then 33, now 42, was directing a production of the musical “Dreamgirls” for Arkansas Rep in Little Rock and had gone to Central’s campus as part of a personal pilgrimage that has led him to several sites significant to America’s civil rights struggle.
In 1957 nine black students from Little Rock’s segregated high schools were chosen to attend Central as a way to test the efficacy of the 1954 Supreme Court decision in the case of Brown vs. Board of Education, in which the justices unanimously ruled that keeping schools separate, equal or not, was a matter of de jure segregation and a violation of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.
Those nine teenagers, now known as the Little Rock Nine, faced down angry, insulting, threatening mobs to take classes at Central. Famous photographs show the first of the group, Elizabeth Eckford, being escorted through the jeering crowd by members of the 101st Airborne Division, its black soldiers excused, at the order of U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The action was a response to Arkansas governor Orval Faubus’ deployment of his state’s National Guard to stop Eckford and her companions.
With sankofa increasing his sensations, Maharaj immediately sensed the drama that occurred exactly where he stood. He says he could feel the essence of not only his ancestors but of Elizabeth and her classmates. He wondered if a play had ever been written about the Little Rock Nine and their role in advancing civil rights.
A fast consultation with Arkansas Rep artistic director Robert Hupp informed him the story had never been brought to the stage. Maharaj traded his director’s hat for a playwright’s and wrote a play, “Little Rock,” that comes in revised form to Trenton’s Passage Theater, running Thursday, October 2, to Sunday, October 26.
Maharaj, during a break in “Little Rock” rehearsals, says his script for the Passage production is his third, honed after stagings in Little Rock and Palo Alto, California. It is definitive, in his opinion, and could move to New York this spring if the Trenton run is successful.
He says his play is a documentary that includes the words of each of the Little Rock Nine and is organized to show what happened during the group’s first year at Central. In the nine years since he embarked on writing the play, Maharaj has met and spoken extensively to each of the students, including Jefferson Thomas, who died in 2010 after working for Mobil Oil and the U.S. Department of Defense.
“I describe ‘Little Rock’ as a combination of ‘The Glass Menagerie’ and ‘The Laramie Project,’” Maharaj says. “It is a memory play with the documentary elements you’ll find in pieces by Anna Deavere Smith (an American performer and playwright who blends theater and journalism). It was very important to me that the voices and memories of the nine people who entered Central High School in 1957 be heard, and that we see the story through their eyes.
“Lots of people are familiar with the picture of Elizabeth (Eckford) being led into the school. What you don’t see is that the soldiers called in to keep the approach and entrance to the school orderly were not permitted into the building. Once Elizabeth and the others passed the crowd, who were yelling all kind of threats at them, they were on their own to face the classmates and teachers.”
The writer says the stories from that experience are quite moving. “Minnijean (Brown) did not make it through that first year at Central because she retaliated to the taunts she received from other students. Melba (Patillo) was trapped by a group of girls and had acid thrown in her eye. The Nine had to show a lot of restraint and fortitude to endure their roles as the first to do something.
“My play chronicles a lot of the experiences the Nine had while inside and unprotected. I divide the show into four parts that represent the seasons from the time Elizabeth entered the building to the time Ernest (Green) is graduated from Central in June, 1958,” says Maharaj.
“One of the more fascinating things to me in talking to the Nine was the differences in how they remember all that happened. I was reminded that experience, and memory, are individual. Each person had a different perspective, his or her own point of view.
“Carlotta (Walls) had an especially intense journey compared to the others. She was the youngest of the group, age 14. She and Jefferson, also 14 in 1957, were the only ones besides Ernest to be graduated from the school because Governor Faubus ordered all Little Rock schools closed in the fall of 1958 to prevent integration. Most of the Nine dispersed to continue their educations in St. Louis, Kansas City, New York, and Los Angeles. Carlotta remained in Little Rock and returned to Central when it reopened. Thelma (Mothershed) completed her education elsewhere but was given a diploma from Central,” he says.
Maharaj refers to himself as a “history nerd” and says his penchant to learn all he can about the civil rights movement made him curious to visit Little Rock Central. “A lot of the focus of the plays I’ve written and directed comes directly from my interest in civil rights, past and present. As a person of color and of unusual background, I have curiosity about minorities and underdogs that go beyond the black or South Asian experience to the Native Americans and the Trail of Tears.”
He says that writing and working on “Little Rock” helped to change his perspective about theater. “I was always dramatic, even as a child, and always given to telling stories through theater. My attitude as an artist is art is to entertain. When I began a theater, called Rebel, in New York, I wanted the work to be eclectic and show both the levity and seriousness of life.
“I continue to believe art should entertain, but ‘Little Rock’ and some other plays have shown me art can also educate. It can entertainingly acquaint people with history and culture that are part of the American, and the human, experience. ‘Little Rock’ is not only a story about nine people, although those people are its focus. It’s about America coming to a next stage in its development. I look to include a sense of harmony and enlightenment in what I write. ‘Little Rock’ is an example of that.”
It is also an example of something deeper. “My sankofa moment, when I could literally see Elizabeth entering Central, told me it important for me to tell this story. It is an essential part of black history and needs to be known,” he says.
Maharaj is an innovator. In addition to writing “Little Rock” and other plays, he has founded theater companies and national theater education program for children, Be-Do-Fly. He is also involved in preserving the oral heritage of African-American storytelling.
All of this from someone who received his first degree from St. John’s in criminal justice, followed by a master of fine arts degree from Brooklyn College.
Born in Brooklyn in 1972, Maharaj spent his early life in the Caribbean. His mother, Naomi, came from the Bahamas, his late father, Roy, from India and Trinidad. Once settled in Brooklyn, Naomi worked for the U.S. Post Office while Roy owned construction companies.
Maharaj cites his roots as motivating his desire to learn more about civil rights and see those stories on stage. Last season, Maharaj was assistant director for the Tony-winning revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun.” This year, his attention is undividedly on “Little Rock.”
“I am especially happy that [Passage Theater’s artistic director] June Ballinger wanted to do this play in Trenton, a city that figures into the story because in 1944 the Hedgepeth-Williams case — which ordered the integration of Trenton’s schools — was decided here. Thurgood Marshall uses that verdict as his precedent for arguing Brown vs. Board of Education.”
Maharaj, at various times calls “Little Rock” thrilling, moving, and crazy. He also says it fulfills his sankofa commitment to his ancestors and to the people who fought to get the Little Rock Nine the education that might have been denied them.
Little Rock, Passage Theater, Mill Hill Playhouse, 205 E. Front Street, Trenton, Thursday, October 2, through Sunday, October 26, Thursday through Saturday, 8 p.m., and Sunday, 3 p.m. $30 to $35. 609-392-0766 or visit www.passagetheatre.org.