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Little Rock: An American Play
In Little Rock by Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj, each of the nine students who bravely resisted the impulse to strike back at the white students and faculty who tormented and humiliated them as they attempted to get an education has been given an opportunity to be recognized as an individual. As a group, they stuck together through thick and thin. If they collectively were able to push the restart button in an America that had stalled in its promise for civil rights for all, individually they appear to us as courageous, talented, bright, and even one resolutely humor-motivated teen.
There are lots of stories to be told along with a good helping of songs and singing that has been integrated into what is otherwise a harrowing, heart-breaking play. Let's change that to a play about a group of determined teenagers as a force for change and an America being forced to change.
A series of workshops over the past six years has resulted in this world premiere production by Passage Theatre Company in association with Rebel Theatrical Management LLC. An integrated cast of nine gifted performers not only portray the students but many black and white characters. Their stories progress over the tumultuous period from September 1957 to graduation day in May 1958.
As directed by Rebel Theater Company's Producing Artistic Director Indo-Caribbean Maharaj, Little Rock is at its core theater of testimony that uses the words of the students as a bridge to the various incidents that defined their year best characterized as high hopes in a living hell. But there is nothing hellish about the talent that has been brought together. As a formidable ensemble, they occupy the single stage setting designed by German Cardenas-Alaminos. An American flag and a large blackboard serve as a backdrop for two rows of wooden desks on an elevated platform flanked by coat racks.
We are introduced to the ensemble as they walk down the aisle toward the stage singing "Eyes on the Prize," an early indication also of the superb voices that will be raised in song to bring punctuation and perspective to various actions. Students are introduced as they write their name on the blackboard. Touching personal narratives segue into searing and scalding confrontations. There is no attempt to use dramatic contrivance considering the horrific realities that these students confronted.
All the acting is on a high level, but somehow I can't forget Adiagha Faizah, who as Gloria Ray says, "I feel like Anne Frank" when she takes refuge in the school's boiler room. As an adult, she becomes an attorney; The smug image of Jon L. Peacock who, as Governor Faubus sent a chill down my spine when he casually remarks to Mike Wallace, "Blood will run in the streets of Little Rock." Why am I not surprised by the placard of a protester that read: Blame the Communist Jews." I laughed aloud with everyone when Terrence (as played by the terrific Damian Norfleet) who, as an adult psychologist, recalls saying to a black youth, "A belt is your friend."
It is a pleasure to see Shabazz Green's Jefferson Thomas, pick up a trumpet and become an uncannily realized Louis Armstrong and Gia McGlone's Elizabeth Eckford morph into Lena Horne. What works especially well is how beautifully Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt, Senator Richard are portrayed and embedded into the play.
On the downside, the play is much too long at nearly three hours. Would that the memories of the Little Rock Nine were confined to the past and not so indelibly affixed to the present. At one point the students sit as group and ponder the possibility of a black man ever becoming the President. How wonderful that all nine are alive to know the answer.
Book of Mormon -CD
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Slings & Arrows-the complete set
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