The cast of ‘Little Rock.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
By Samuel L. Leiter
In September 1957, a select group of nine black students in Little Rock, Arkansas, all close to my own age at the time, caused a national uproar when they tested the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision that school segregation was unconstitutional by enrolling at Little Rock Central High School. To achieve their goal, these brave young men and women, known as the Little Rock Nine, had to overcome the resistance not only of the city’s anti-integrationist white students and citizens but that of Gov. Orval Faubus, backed by the National Guard.
The conflict, which forced a confrontation between federal laws and states’ rights, obliged Pres. Eisenhower to send in federal troops to ensure the students’ safety, made international headlines and turned Faubus and Arkansas into symbols of racist hatred for years. Of course, the town’s reputation was nothing new; it’s the hometown of Nellie Forbush, the (initially) prejudiced heroine of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1949 musical South Pacific.
The gripping story of what the nine students—Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Patillo, Gloria Ray, Terrence Roberts, Jefferson Thomas, and Carlotta Walls—went through has been told often in movies (like 1981’s Crisis at Central High and 1993’s The Ernest Green Story) and print. It’s now getting the full theatrical treatment in Little Rock, a disappointingly hackneyed play with music by Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj, who also directed.
Maharaj uses nine actors, six black and three white, to recount the story in an episodic, pageant-like progression of scenes, during which the actors play multiple roles (one actor covers 10), with endless costume and wig changes (kudos to Leslie Bernstein for period faithfulness, especially those crinolines).
For all the emphasis on the Little Rock Nine, and even the program’s listing the cast members—whites included—as Little Rockians One through Nine, we never see more than six at a time; Anita Welch covers three of them (Elizabeth, Melba, and Juanita) while Shanice Williams, the effervescent standout, plays two (Gloria and Minijean [sic]).
Rasean Davonte Johnson’s makeshift-looking, neutral set, dominated by a low upstage wall bearing the school’s name, with a set of large, glass-paneled doors above it, is supplemented by numerous archival stills and videos of people and headlines. Famous individuals we meet in the flesh include entertainer Louis Armstrong (Justin Cunningham), Faubus and Eisenhower (Peter O’Connor), television journalist Mike Wallace (Ashley Robinson), and baseball great Jackie Robinson and civil rights leader Martin Luther King (Damian Jermaine Thompson).
Act I of this way-too-long, two-hour-and-20-minute play covers the tumultuous circumstances surrounding the student’s preparation, under the mentorship of Arkansas NAACP leader Daisy Bates (Stephanie Umoh), for spearheading the school’s desegregation, with all the trauma it comprised. Act II offers an overview of what happened afterward, focusing on the experiences of a few students, like Ernest Green (Charlie Hudson III), who showed up to receive his diploma despite threats of violence.
Throughout, unprovoked needling, beatings, and slurs (a torrent of “n” words) from dyed-in-the-wool crackers conflict with sympathetic white reactions. Surprisingly, no addenda is offered regarding what eventually happened to the Little Rock Nine.
Musical interpolations arrive regularly, mostly of gospel songs, sometimes motivated by the action, sometimes not. On several occasions, as when Louis Armstrong sings “When You’re Smiling” or Minijean warbles “Tammy,” pop tunes are introduced. The singers, though—fine during their gospel numbers—do serious damage to the familiar tunes.
For all its implicit drama, and the presence of a competent cast, Little Rock never rises to the level of polished, professional theatre. The characters are one-dimensional, the dialogue superficial, the staging uninspired, some of the performances overwrought, and much of the humor (aside from one hilarious moment) juvenile. Notably irksome are the groan-worthy jokes that Jefferson keeps making about states’ names: “What state is round at each end and high in the middle? Ohio… you get it? O. HI. O.” With actors who are obviously adults playing the teenagers, the innocence of such dated japeries falls seriously flat, as does the impact of these momentous experiences on adolescent psyches.
Still, Little Rock needn’t be immediately written off. If it could be pared down to an hour and a half, with less focus on Act II’s melodramatics, and given more creative direction, it would have great value for high school audiences. The material is as relevant as ever, making its closing number, in which the entire company joins in singing “We Shall Overcome,” still capable of stirring hearts and minds.
Sheen Center/Loreto Theatre
18 Bleecker St., NYC
Through September 8
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. Sam, a Drama Desk voter, has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theatre, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side, Theater Pizzazz, Theater Life.