Using a tremendously talented and versatile cast of nine actors (three black male actors, three black female actors, as well as three white performers) playing from three roles to 12, the story of the year these heroic teenagers spent integrating the previously segregated high school becomes high drama. Rasean Davonte Johnson’s unit setting with its banks of stairs makes copious use of Wendall K. Harrington’s projection design for the many locations in the city of Little Rock, inside and outside of the school and the homes of the participants, as well as historical footage of the events and the people. Little Rock also includes snatches of 14 songs, some sung as choruses and others as solos including “Eyes on the Prize” and “We Shall Overcome,” which add a human dimension to the often startling events depicted.
The nine students were supposed to start high school on September 4, 1957 but white segregationist Governor Orval Faubus deployed the Arkansas National Guard to help the local racist Little Rock demonstrators keep from allowing them entrance, in contempt of the Federal Court ruling of 1954 that had declared segregation in all schools unconstitutional. Eventually President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent in the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army and the nine students were given a military escort to begin classes on September 25, three weeks later. The first act also includes a recreation of television commentator Mike Wallace’s interview with Gov. Faubus, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s press conference during the initial crisis and President Eisenhower’s subsequent address to the nation. We see the fears and hopes of these students chosen on the basis of merit who had volunteered to pave the way for others, as well as learning of the sacrifices they have made: no teams, no clubs, no dances.
However, the second act tells a much more human story: the verbal, physical and psychological abuse heaped upon the Little Rock Nine by their bigoted white classmates throughout the school year, as well as the few cases of camaraderie with white students. Although all nine are depicted at one time or another, we get to know six of them best: Minijean Brown who wants to be a singer but who can’t follow the proscription of non-violence when the insults get to be too much (Shanice Williams); Melba Patillo who wants to become a Shakespeare actress and has a brief chance to play opposite Link, a white student, on the school stage (Anita Welch), Jefferson Allison Thomas who tells jokes in order to keep from crying (Justin Cunningham), the extremely bright Terrence James Roberts who has to use all of his energy to ensure the examples of verbal and physical abuse that he is subjected to don’t push him over the edge (Damian Jermaine Thompson); and Ernest Green, the only senior, who uses his Eagle Scout training to survive until graduation, when he is told it would be safer if he doesn’t attend (Charlie Hudson III).
Stephanie Umoh portrays Daisy Lee Bates, NAACP Chapter President in Little Rock who helps mentor the students while Rebekah Brockman plays both Vice Principal Mrs. Huckaby an advocate for the Little Rock Nine, as well as Robin Woods, a white student who is crazy about soul music. Ashley Robinson runs the gamut of characters from racist classmate Ford to television commentator Mike Wallace, and General Edwin Walker on the side of the students, as well as classmate Link, thrilled to be able to recite Shakespeare with a black classmate for the first time.
In a tour de force, Peter O’Connor appears as 12 separate characters from the racist Governor Faubus and a local pharmacist wielding a baseball bat, to President Eisenhower and Danny, a member of the 101st Airborne who guards Melba in the spring of 1958. Along the way we also meet several of the mothers and one grandmother who worry about their children, as well as baseball superstar Jackie Robinson who puts in a call to congratulate one of the students and trumpeter Louis Armstrong who turns down an offer from the U.S. government to be a cultural ambassador to the Soviet Union during the worse part of the Little Rock crisis. Welch is extremely moving as Ernest’s mother Lothaire Green who as the first black woman to graduate from a Southern university but denied the right to receive her diploma in person looks forward to seeing her son Ernest graduate from an Arkansas high school in person.
Leslie Bernstein had the heroic job of costuming these many characters so that we can keep them all differentiated while Lindsay Jones’ sound design is a marvel of clarity. Robert Westley is credited with the movement choreography which creates the crowd and violent scenes and Amy Stoller as dialect designer gave the appropriate actors playing Arkansas characters their Little Rock speech.
Not only is Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj’s Little Rock informative and enlightening, it is also terrific theater and the playwright makes a great deal of information easily digestible. The recounting of the many incidents both dastardly and kindly build up to a very complete and dramatic picture of those turbulent days. Ultimately, the students seem tremendously heroic to have stuck out their trials and tribulations to the end of the school year. During the intermission visit “LR9: 1957,” a multimedia group exhibition on the Little Rock Central High School integration, inspired by the nine students, in the Gallery at the Sheen Center, running through August 3.
Little Rock (through September 8, 2018)
Sheen Center for Thought & Culture
Loretto Theater, 18 Bleecker Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-925-2812 or visit http://www.littlerockplay.com
Running time: two hours and ten minutes with one intermission