By Tulis McCall
The Little Rock Nine is a group of people who should be bronzed. Their story is one that should be told over and over and over again. Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Patillo, Gloria Ray, Terrence Roberts, Jefferson Thomas, and Carlotta Walls stepped over the line of segregation in Little Rock, Arkansas and risked their lives to change the world. Fifty years ago.
I wonder how many of us get that part: Risked-Their-Lives. These people woke up in the morning and had to wonder if they would A) Get to school and B) Get home alive and unhurt. I ask because the well intentioned writer and director of Little Rock, Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj, does not seem to have gotten the message himself. The Little Rock Nine (We never see more than Six btw) that he has recreated gins up less anxiety about defying Jim Crow than most families experience arguing over a takeout order.
There is a lightness and frivolity that dominates this play that is out of keeping with the story. Somehow the fact that The President of the United States (Dwight D.Eisenhower) and the Governor of Alabama (Orval Faubus) as well as Mike Wallace, the National Guard AND Federal troops weighed in on The Nine receives equal air play with three of the young women mooning over Pat Boone. As a matter of fact the play opens with an excited Elizabeth Eckford marveling that there is a parade at the school on opening day. It is of course a demonstration, and not a pretty one. Eckford seems surprised at the commotion which is kind of not believable. In an online interview Carlotta Walls says, as it says in the play, that she only wanted to go to school. This makes sense, but to have these students appear so unaware of the situation is astonishing.
Oh there are the token scenes of insults and beatings, with plenty of the “N” word sprinkled around. We, the audience, get the point. But that is because it is spoon fed to us. The script doles out incident after incident while the projections (the images are completely distorted by glass pained doors upstage center) attempt to show the protesters and their signs that screamed segregation. None of this is convincing or particularly daring. With an event so enormous, we want to be taken into the bowels of the story to see how the evil sausage was made. And we want to see how those students maintained when everyone and everything was hurled against them. We want to see them persevere, and we want to feel the cost.
In addition, we are missing why and how this situation happened to begin with. After the 1954 Supreme Court decision that school segregation was unconstitutional – why did it take 3 years for these children to make it to the halls of Little Rock Central High School. And how was it the decision made to put children on the line and why these 9 (originally 10). How were they prepared, and did they all go willingly. Where else was this going on, or were all eyes focused only on Arkansas? What we recently saw in Charlottesville, and I think we would all agree it was horrifying and terrifying, these kids faced pretty much every day. What kind of person would sign up for that? Sadly we never find out, except for one tiny moment before Ernest Green attends his graduation. And not for nothin’ but these are supposed to be 14-16 years old students. This fine, very fine cast does not come close.
There is so much rich opportunity here. We are still a segregated country. Our prisons are filled with people of color. Just about every measurement of progress and success in this country is tilted in the favor of white folks. We have not made the progress hoped for. We, as a country, should look well and hard at this chapter of our collective history. This story is an important one. Kudos to Mr. Maharaj for making a run at this. Too bad he wasn’t willing to scratch below the surface.
Little Rock – written and directed by Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj
WITH Rebekah Brockman, Justin Cunningham, Charlie Hudson III, Peter O’Connor,Ashley Robinson, Damian Jermaine Thompson, Stephanie Umoh, Anita Welch, Shanice Williams
Darryl G. Ivey(music director), Rasean Davonte Johnson (scenic design), Leslie Bernstein (costume d esign), Anshuman Bhatia (lighting design), Lindsay Jones(sound design),Carissa Thorlakson (wig design), Wendall K. Harrington(projection design).
Little Rock plays the following performance schedule: Through September 8. Tuesday s – Thursdays at 7: 3 0PM, Fridays at 8:00PM, Saturday s at 3 :00PM & 8:00PM, and Sunday s at 3:00P M & 7:3 0PM. Tickets for Little Rock, NOW ON SALE are priced from $39 -$99,with Premium Seats priced at $119 –$125 , and Student Tickets at $25, plus $2 facility fee & $6 convenience fee per ticket. Tickets may be purchased online at www.littlerockplay.comor at The Sheen Center Box Office (18 Bleecker Street, Monday – Friday 11:00AM – 5:00PM, and one hour prior to every performance) , or by calling the Box Office at (212) 925 – 2812