Little Rock, Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj’s docudrama about the nine African American students who integrated a white high school in the Arkansas capital in 1957, seems especially relevant now. Near the end of the play, an actor assuming the persona of television news reporter Mike Wallace says, “It’s astonishing what the Nine from Little Rock have taught us as a people—that even children can, in a gentle way, shake the world for better.” It remains an important lesson today as schools face new and presumably insurmountable challenges. Indeed, as the inspirational and courageously outspoken Parkland, Fla., shooting survivors continue to demonstrate, adults can learn a great deal about social change and agitation from the youth.
Set during the 1957–58 academic school year, Little Rock follows the nine students from the first day of class to the triumphant graduation of the oldest member of the cohort. Following the outcome of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the students, backed by the NAACP and the federal government, enrolled in Little Rock Central High School, a racially segregated institution. A political firestorm erupted when Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus ordered the state’s National Guard to prohibit the admittance of the students. As members of the community and the school’s student body jeered, the Little Rock Nine struck a decisive blow against segregationist policies.
The first act of Maharaj’s play presents the social and civic backdrop of the play with the students caught in the crossfire. Short scenes depict the political posturing, fighting and eventual capitulation that made Little Rock Central resemble a battlefield more than a public school. The act ends with the stoic students, escorted by the militia, taking their first harrowing walk to the school entrance.
The second act shows the students’ ongoing skirmishes as they fend off physical and verbal abuse on a daily basis. Their NAACP training in nonviolence resistance in the classroom, hallways, and playground is continually put to the test throughout the school year. As one of the students explains, “I’m so tired of being a punching bag for these jerks!” Remarkably, the students—in the main—are strong and passively defiant as they pursue their educations.
Under the direction of Maharaj, the performances are uniformly strong. Each performer takes on a multitude of roles, since the play is structured in the style of a living newspaper. That is, the text weaves narrative scenes with historical commentary, media accounts,and songs (both contemporary and folk standards). The actors thereby alternate between playing high school students and tangential real-life figures, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Damian Jermaine Thompson), Louis Armstrong (Justin Cunningham), Mike Wallace (Ashley Robinson), and Dwight D. Eisenhower (Peter O’Connor). This is a true ensemble, but Stephanie Umoh, Charlie Hudson III, and Shanice Williams particularly shine as three of the most prominent members of the Little Rock Nine.
Although Little Rock is a play that should be seen, it has some serious drawbacks. First, the production is overstuffed with songs and peripheral material and is too long at nearly two-and-a-half hours. Some judicious pruning might give the drama greater urgency and avoid some plodding in the early scenes.
Another obstacle that the playwright has not quite overcome is individualizing the students. Historically and dramatically, the students are lumped together as a single unit, the Little Rock Nine. There are attempts to differentiate them, but they don’t ever become fully fleshed-out characters. In dramaturgical shorthand, for instance, there is the smart one, the joking one and the sweet-natured airhead.
The play certainly has contemporary resonance, but the design team has done fine work in capturing the images and atmosphere of the 1950s. Notably, Wendall K. Harrington’s projections provide effective mood and meta-textual commentary, and Leslie Bernstein’s costumes, with period-perfect skirts and petticoats, capture the right sense of nostalgia.
The evening ends with a rousing “We Shall Overcome” as the students and the larger Little Rock community gesture toward their vital role in the burgeoning Civil Rights era, of which they were on the cusp. The song reverberates through the decades, and the chorus will hopefully be picked up by a new generation of high school students committed to social and cultural change.
Little Rock plays through Sept. 8 at the Sheen Center for Thought and Culture (18 Bleecker St.). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and on Sunday, with 8 p.m. performances on Friday and Saturday; matinees are at 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets may be purchased by calling the box office at (212) 925-2812 or online at littlerockplay.com.