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Theatre in Review: Little Rock (Sheen Center)

Rebekah Brockman, Anita Welch. Photo: Carol Rosegg

In the second act of Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj's new play, a fifteen-year-old girl stands in an empty school auditorium singing the old Debbie Reynolds hit, "Tammy." It Is 1958, and she is Minnijean Brown, one of the Little Rock Nine, a group of black students who have volunteered to integrate Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas. The playwright portrays Minnijean as dreamily devoted to the day's pop stars, seemingly unaware that they are products of a culture that shuts her out. ("I'm gonna marry Pat Boone someday," she says, a sentiment that, expressed in the wrong place, could get her assaulted, or worse.) And, of all songs, she chooses the theme of the film Tammy and the Bachelor, with its sanitized view of an American South populated almost entirely by gracious whites -- except for Louise Beavers, who plays the cook.

Minnijean is interrupted by Peggy Sue, a cheerleader, who applauds and says, laughing, "Do you think you're Debbie Reynolds? Have you looked in the mirror lately, monkey? I'm curious, what does it feel like to have monkey lips? A monkey nose? Monkey hair? Monkey skin? You sure are one big, fat, ugly, colored monkey!" The most chilling thing about this speech is the ease with which it is delivered; Peggy Sue's easy assumption of superiority -- and her freely expressed hostility -- speaks volumes about life in the apartheid state of Arkansas. Minnijean, impulsively, lashes back, calling Peggy Sue "white trash," and soon they are joined by Ford, a young man; together, they overwhelm Minnijean, allowing Peggy Sue to hit her with her purse, which is filled with combination locks. When the incident is reported to the school authorities, Minnijean is expelled.

Time after time, Little Rock, the play, presents moments like this, from which one instinctively wants to turn away, dismissing them as crude bits of melodrama. This proves impossible, thanks to Wendall K. Harrington's projections, which draw heavily on archival photos of events surrounding the Little Rock Nine. It's all there -- the menacing crowds, their faces contorted in rage, toting signs making statements like "Race mixing is Communism" -- in naked displays of fury that, at the distance of half a century, have lost none of their power to appall.

The details keep coming: A black couple, out for a drive with their children, is stopped by a passing motorist who appears to be asking for directions; he rolls down his window long enough to spit in the wife's face. Daisy Bates, head of the local NAACP chapter, says that her "windows have been taped and re-taped because of all the rocks, bricks, and bullet holes that have been shot threw them," adding that in her carport are "the charred remains of six burnt crosses that have been set ablaze on my front lawn since September." Even the most heinous act is justified in the name of maintaining the status quo. Standing in front of the school, Governor Orval Faubus delivers a speech that is a masterpiece of passive aggression: "Due to forced integration, the hand of fellowship, heretofore extended everywhere in Little Rock between the races, has been largely withdrawn. Neither Negro nor white now knows whether the hand will be friendly or unfriendly. This is a grievous setback to the cause of progress, justice, and Christian charity." The assertion that harmony reigned until those pushy integrationists came to town may be the single most chilling thing in Little Rock.

There's no point in pretending that this is a sophisticated or accomplished dramatic work. It is poorly constructed, stubbornly failing to build dramatic excitement. The playwright, who also directed, struggles to realize the large cast of characters, each of whom is distinguished by one or two superficial traits. The dialogue is loaded with obvious and redundant statements in the name of conveying exposition. The scenes featuring the young people are filled with trivial chatter and a surprising lack of tension; you'd never know that they were daily risking their lives to attend public school. When invention flags, the cast merely steps downstage and bursts into a gospel hymn.

Still, if the overall arc of the piece is awkward and sluggish, there are many moments that leave a searing mark on the audience. Mr. Jones, a black gardener, stands against integration, asking Ernest Green, one of the Nine, "Tell me, boy, what advantage is there in being integrated into a burning house?" Louis Armstrong passes through, cheerfully singing "When You're Smiling," pausing long enough to announce he won't be going to the Soviet Union as a goodwill ambassador for a country that torments his people. And Major General Edwin Walker, leader of the 101st Airborne Division, sent by President Eisenhower to restore order, stuns the Nine by explaining their new daily drill: "There will be two soldiers in the car with you with machine guns. There will be two Jeeps, one in front and one behind you. They will both have machine gun mounts on them. Your military escorts have clear orders to only escort you from class to class. They will not be able to interact with the white students and yourselves."

There are small moments of triumph. When Ford, baiting Terrence James Roberts, another member of the Nine, in class, asks if "the Africans" -- whom he also calls "monkeys" and "jungle bunnies" -- learn about algebra in the jungle, the teacher coolly replies that since algebra was invented in Egypt, Africans do just fine with it. Melba Pattillo, who is devoted to Shakespeare -- she dreams of being Hamlet -- makes an unexpected connection with Link, another student of the Bard. ("Let's be friends, like Romeo and Juliet," he offers. "They died," she replies flatly.) And is there an admission more poignant than when Minnijean, counting her blessings, says, "Well, during the bomb threat this afternoon, I made some new friends."

The cast of nine is kept extremely busy all night long, doubling, tripling, and quadrupling roles. (One actor, Peter O'Connor, is assigned twelve separate characters, ranging from the oleaginous Faubus to the school's harried principal. Among the standouts are Stephanie Umoh as the plainspoken Daisy Bates; Charlie Hudson III as Ernest, the oldest of the nine and the first to face graduation; Ashley Robinson, who does a nifty imitation of TV newsman Mike Wallace; Anita Welch as Melba; and Shanice Williams as Minnijean. Aside from Harrington's all-important imagery, the rest of the production -- Rasean Davonte Johnson's set, depicting the fa├žade and front steps of the school; Leslie Bernstein's costumes; Anshuman Bhatia's lighting; and Lindsay Jones' sound -- is okay without being inspired.

The play climaxes with Ernest's graduation day, which is marked by a phone call from Jackie Robinson and a visit from Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as death threats by phone and the news that FBI sharpshooters will be on hand to take out any snipers. When the principal calls and begs him not to attend, Ernest makes a decision that will cause him to quote Psalm 23 to keep himself together.

Little Rock is a strange case: It's hard to recommend it for the usual reasons, but at a time when so much nonsense is being spewed about race -- not least the laughable notion that white men constitute some kind of endangered minority -- it has something urgent to say. (Young people who might not have a good grasp of recent American history would benefit hugely from a visit.) It's fashionable right now to insist that our society is regressing into a pack of hostile tribes. But, as this play shows, our divisions go far back; the original sin of racism is a long, long way from being expunged. -- David Barbour

(14 June 2018)

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