Little Rock Sings Racial Justice A Cappella
School desegregation takes center stage at the Sheen Center.
Writer-director Rajendra Ramoon Maharai spent 13 years conducting interviews for Little Rock, his new play with music, now at the Sheen Center. That research shows in this highly informative, tuneful, and heavy-handed show. You'll learn a lot about this pivotal moment in school desegregation, but perhaps not so much about how to craft an artful theatrical story line.
The play is about the Little Rock Nine, the real-life pioneers of desegregation who were the first black students to attend the hitherto all-white Little Rock Central High School. The Arkansas National Guard, under orders from Governor Orval Faubus, barred them from entering the school for much of September 1957. Once Faubus removed the guard, a vigilante mob of over 1,000 segregationists moved in to take its place, leading President Eisenhower to famously deploy the 101st Airborne Division to escort the students to class.
To give us the sense of the violent opposition the Nine faced, Little Rock opens with a mob taunting 15-year-old Elizabeth Eckford (Anita Welch) with vile racial slurs and a Confederate battle flag. A white student (the ever-intense Rebekah Brockman) hounds Eckford, while another white student (Ashley Robinson) flat-out calls Terrence Roberts (Damian Jermaine Thompson) a monkey during algebra class. Characters ranging from Mike Wallace (Robinson) to Martin Luther King Jr. (Thompson) feature in this panoramic telling of how nine teenagers broke through the concrete wall of racial segregation and helped change the whole country.
Appropriately, this is a play for nine actors (even though only seven of the students are depicted). Everyone plays multiple roles, with Peter O'Connor astoundingly taking on 12 characters, including both Eisenhower and Faubus. Justin Cunningham is charming as the dad-joke-telling Jefferson Thomas, but his most memorable turn is as Louis Armstrong: He embodies the paradox of Satchmo, transforming from smiling crooner to fiery activist and back again with a snap of his fingers.
Unfortunately, most of the acting is not as fully fleshed-out, often verging on TV movie melodrama: The actors punch the air and burst into sobs in an effort to add emotion to a script that grinds unstoppably forward in its historical narrative, like a theatrical Ken Burns documentary. Maharaj has attempted to stuff so much into two hours that beats feel rushed and unnatural. He introduces new characters deep into the second act, never to be seen again. A good director might have told him that less is more, but that rarely happens when the director is also the playwright.
At least Maharaj's production is simple and effective: Rasean Davonte Johnson's unobtrusive set conjures the institutional bricks of almost any American high school, while Leslie Bernstein's costumes vitally help to distinguish characters. Wendall K. Harrington's projections of newspaper front pages from the era provide important context about how these events were perceived at the time.
Undoubtedly, the most impressive aspect of Little Rock is the music: protest songs performed entirely without accompaniment. Music director and arranger Darryl G. Ivey leads this musically talented cast to flawless and harmonically intricate performances. Refreshingly, this is not the bourgeois college a cappella that has become so ubiquitous in the age of Pitch Perfect. Rather, it is both soulful and joyful in the grand tradition of the struggle for civil rights.
No character embodies that spirit more than Minnijean Brown (an excellent Shanice Williams): She's a boy-crazy teenager who loves Debbie Reynolds and Pat Boone. It seems that no one has yet told her that this is a country in which everything is racialized and these are white singers for white people; and if they have told her, she pays them no mind. It's this naïveté that allows her to go into a white high school as if it was perfectly natural, despite a century of segregated education. What these courageous kids know that adults often forget is that things usually are the way they are because no one bothers to ask why.