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A CurtainUp Review
Although inspiring and prompting reflection on the early Civil Rights Movement in America, it over-reaches itself and tries to shoehorn too many historical personages into two hours. The result is that Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Louis Armstrong, Jackie Robinson, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Mike Wallace turn into cookie-cutter characters painted in too broad strokes.
The play gains more theatrical traction when it focuses on local community members like Mrs. Daisy Lee Bates, who was the then President of the Little Rock Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). We listen to her press conference held outside her home in September 1957, in which she reports that the Little Rock Ten had just shrunk to the Little Rock Nine. She explains that Jane Hill, one of the black students selected to attend Little Rock High School, has just decided to return to her old high school after witnessing how Elizabeth Eckford was attacked by a mob of segregationists outside Central High School. This is a moment that can send chills down your spine, and cheer at Bates's broadcast wrap up indicating that all nine ended up alive and kicking: "Elizabeth Eckford, despite the horrific events she endured while walking alone to school, will be continuing as a student at Little Rock Central High."
Another episode that comes alive is when Rockian Ernest Gideon Green has a heart-to-heart with an old family friend Mr. Jones, who is annoyed that his prize-winning petunias have been walked over during the racial mayhem. Ernest, the only senior of the Little Rock Nine, tries to explain to Mr. Jones the value of breaking the color barrier at Little Rock High School. Although Mr. Jones retorts that he's too set in his ways to support integration, it's apparent that he admires Ernest for being at the vanguard of the Civil Rights Movement and has a pertinent reflection to share with him on people: "Listen boy, there are three kinds of people in the world: those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who wonder what the hell happened."
Ultimately the play is at its most powerful when it takes us inside the walls of Little Rock High School and allows us to glimpse racism in the raw. We witness white students taunting black students in the classrooms, hallways, and beyond. And we listen to the black students describe their angst writ large during their first difficult year at Central High School. Or as Terrence puts it in boxing terms: "This school is so big, we don't even see the girls until the end of the day. I'm so tired of being a punching bag for these jerks!"
The Little Rock Crisis Timeline included in the program helpfully details the key events of the crisis and cites the key court rulings on school segregation — most notably the 1954 Supreme Court Ruling that found desegregation in the schools unconstitutional.
The music terrifically bolsters the theatrical energy and propels the action forward. Songs like "Eyes on the Prize," "Precious Lord, Take My Hand," and "We Shall Overcome" lend a religious fervor to the proceedings and underscore the strong faith of the Little Rock Nine.
With 47 characters presented all the performers playing multiple roles. They morph with with admiral ease from being ordinary citizens to a famous personages.
Rasean Davonte Johnson's set has a superb simulation of the front facade of Little Rock Central High School as well as its plain institutional interiors. Leslie Bernstein whipped up a wardrobe that mirrors the late 50s in the South. The cast, in fact, look like they have stepped right out of an archival photograph taken during the Little Rock Crisis.
In sum, Little Rock gives you an authentic picture of the Little Rock Nine and their baptism by fire at Little Rock Central High School. Though it fails to flesh-out the constellation of historical personages that parade through its scenes, the play scores when it comes to delineating the nine black students who battled for a better education —and won.
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Little Rock by Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj
Directed by Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj
Cast: Rebekah Brockman (Little Rockian Nine/ Peggy Sue/ Robin Woods/ Mrs. Grace Lorch/ 101st Soldier/ Mrs. Huckaby), Justin Cunningham (Little Rockian Five /Jefferson Allison Thomas/ Louis Armstrong/ Mr. Jones), Charlie Hudson III (Little Rockian Six/ Ernest Green/Cartelyou Walls/ Pastor Bass), Peter O'Connor (Little Rockian Eight/ Governor Orval Faubus/ Arkansas National Guard/ Irving Brown/ Pharmacist/ Disc Jockey/ President Dwight D. Eisenhower/ 101st Soldier/ Little Rock Police Officer/ Mr. Conrad/ Danny/ Principal Matthews), Ashley Robinson (Little Rockian Seven/ Mike Wallace/ Ford/ Dr. Benjamin Fine/Major General Edwin Walker/ Little Rock Police Officer/ Link ), Damian Jermaine Thompson (Little Rockian Four/ Dr. Terrence James Roberts/ Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr./ Jackie Robinson), Stephanie Umoh (Little Rockian Three/ Carlotta Walls/ Thelma Mothershed/ Daisey Bates/ Grandma India), Anita Welch (Little Rockian One/ Elizabeth Eckford/Dr. Melba Pattillo/ Juanita Walls/ Lothaire Green), Shanice Williams (Little Rockian Two/ Gloria Ray/ Minijean Brown).
Sets: Rasean Davonte Johnson
Costumes: Leslie Bernstein
Sound: Lindsay Jones
Projection design: Wendall K. Harrington
Music Director: Darryl G. Ivey
Lighting: Anshuman Bhatia & Jennifer Hill
Dialect design: Amy Stoller
Stage Manager: Giles T. Horne
The Sheen Center for Thought and Culture at 18 Bleecker Street. www.littlerockplay.com
From 6/08/18; opening 6/14/18; closing 9/08/18.
Tuesday –Thursday @ 7:30pm; Fridays @ 8pm; Saturdays @ 3pm & 8pm; Sundays @ 3pm & 7:30pm.
Running time: 2 hours; 15 minutes with one intermission.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on press performance of 6/20/18
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