NEW YORK—In 1999, President Bill Clinton bestowed the Congressional Gold Medal on the Little Rock Nine. Who were they and what did they achieve? The answer is dramatized at the Sheen Center.
Written and directed by Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj, “Little Rock” re-creates a key time in the Civil Rights movement when nine teenagers overcame adversity to integrate their local high school.
In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court issued the landmark decision in Brown versus Board of Education, holding that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.
Three years later, nine African-American students, six girls and three boys, enrolled in the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. The names of the nine students are Melba Pattillo, Elizabeth Eckford, Minnijean Brown, Carlotta Walls, Gloria Ray, Thelma Mothershed, Terrence Roberts, Ernest Green, and Jefferson Thomas.
“Little Rock” is a dramatization with music of their determination and bravery. Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus initially had the Arkansas National Guard block their entry. Ultimately, President Dwight Eisenhower had to send in federal troops to take them to and from school. Nevertheless, they were subjected to verbal and physical attacks, but with one exception, they maintained their composure under trying circumstances.
Act 1 re-creates the events before they went to school, when Arkansas NAACP leader Daisy Bates (Stephanie Umoh), who had challenged the school board in court, prepared the students for the ordeal they faced. (Note: Two years after her death in 1999, Daisy Bates was honored by a state holiday in Arkansas.)
Act 2 depicts the events afterward, once the students are in the school and still subjected to insults, threats, and physical attacks. Their guards didn’t go into the classrooms to safeguard them.
Significantly, the text is not one-sided. There are some sympathetic white characters.
The cast is made up of nine actors, even though only seven of the students are depicted. Everyone plays multiple roles, with Peter O’Connor portraying 12 characters, including President Eisenhower and Governor Faubus.
Justin Cunningham is Jefferson Thomas, who had a penchant for telling corny jokes, and also appears as Louis Armstrong, who publicly expressed his indignation when the president took so long to react to the situation in Little Rock.
Anita Welch is Shakespeare-admirer Melba Pattillo and also Elizabeth Eckford, who faced a taunting mob waving Confederate flags.
Shanice Williams is Minnijean Brown, who is entranced by white performers Pat Boone and Debbie Reynolds (while, ironically, white audiences at the time were likely listening to Elvis Presley, who initially sang black rhythm and blues material.)
Ernest Green (Charlie Hudson III) is an Eagle Scout who faced death threats leading up to his becoming the first African-American student to graduate from Central High School.
Among those playing the unidentified white bigots are Rebekah Brockman, whose character insults Eckford, and Ashley Robinson, whose character flings racial epithets at Terrence Roberts (Damian Jermaine Thompson) during class. Thompson also plays Dr. Martin Luther King, and Stephanie Umoh is the inspiring Daisy Bates.
The play is emotionally affecting, but has certain flaws. For one, the actors are more effective portraying the students and adults of the era than they are appearing as public figures. It would have been better if the audience could have seen the actual segregationist Governor Faubus or news commentator Mike Wallace (played here by Ashley Robinson) in their television appearances.
Credit for the costume and wig changes goes to Leslie Bernstein, and Wendall K. Harrington’s projection design effectively conveys the tumultuous events of the time.
The best element is the a cappella singing of Civil Rights songs of the time, such as “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” and “We Shall Overcome.” The cast members have terrific voices (especially Justin Cunningham), and the show would be improved vastly if there were more music. Darryl G. Ivey is the music director.
Whether as theater or as history, “Little Rock” is worth seeing.
Sheen Center for Thought and Culture
18 Bleecker St.
Tickets: 212-925-2812 or LittleRock.com
Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (one intermission)
Closes: Sept. 8
Barry Bassis has been a music, theater, and travel writer for over a decade for various publications.