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REVIEWS FOR LITTLE ROCK

"Some of us may remember and others may be only vaguely aware of the events surrounding the integration of Little Rock Central High School, Arkansas in 1957. It was a turbulent time in America as bigoted, white anti-integrationists openly defied the push by Negro activists to integrate an all white school. This, despite the Supreme Court decision Brown Vs. Board of Education in 1954.

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."

 

- Simon Saltzman: CurtainUp New Jersey

 

"Trenton's Passage Theatre Company opens its 2014-2015 season with a drama that’s more than a play — it’s an event. Written and directed by Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj, Little Rock has been performed in pieces in various venues over the past couple of years. But this production is its stage debut in full.

Trenton and Passage Theatre are the perfect combination for such a premiere. Passage has a well-established track record with hard-hitting productions that take on serious issues.

Everyone knows the Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which ended racial discrimination in U.S. public schools. But as Artistic Director June Ballinger points out in production notes, the precursor to that landmark case was the N.J. Supreme Court decision of Hedgepeth and Williams v. Board of Education (1944), ending racial discrimination in Trenton’s public schools.

Although desegregation became the law of the land in 1954, its implementation was anything but smooth, especially in the Deep South. Arkansas’ Little Rock Central High School was the site of a tense confrontation in the fall of 1957, when the school board selected nine African American students to enroll in the all-white school.

Mr. Maharaj has consulted with these "Little Rock Nine" (eight of whom survive) in creating an imaginative and powerful drama about their experience. From the first showdown with Arkansas Governor Orvil Faubus (Jon L. Peacock) and the state’s National Guard to the intervention of President Eisenhower (Peacock again) and federal troops, on through the months of abuse the students endured, this play is propelled by fabulous performances of an ensemble cast.

It’s an emotional roller coaster. Mr. Maharaj has not softened the tone or hid language behind euphemisms. The dialogue is raw and the action brutal to point up exactly what these courageous young people suffered to get an equal education. Virtually every racial slur is not just uttered — it’s shouted. Some white students torment their black classmates, physically and emotionally. Some administrators and townspeople are indifferent if not hostile.

A few glimmers of kindness shine through the ugliness. When Terrence Roberts (Damian Norfleet) has forgotten his algebra textbook for class, a white classmate, Robin Woods (Annie Grier), moves her seat closer to share hers. Outside class, they share a love of rock ’n’ roll. But Terrence is then beaten up for "racial mixing."

Melba Patillo (Gia McGlone) loves to recite Shakespeare, a passion inherited from her grandmother. White student Link (Brad Ogden) is thrilled to find a fellow Shakespeare enthusiast, and they trade lines with each other. But when he invites her to join the drama club, she can’t — "Negroes" are not allowed. Later, white student Peggy Sue (Grier) throws acid in her face.

Nine actors assume the dozens of roles, shifting from students to famous personalities, from bigots to friends. Shabazz Green, for example, plays one of the Little Rock Nine, Jefferson Thomas, a father, Martin Luther King Jr., and Louis Armstrong (Mr. Green is an incredible mimic; his Louis Armstrong got a round of applause).

Ms. Grier plays seven characters of different ages and attitudes, including a turn as Eleanor Roosevelt. Mr. Ogden and Mr. Peacock play no fewer than 18 characters between them, in a wide range of ages and prejudices, including TV personality Mike Wallace (Ogden), Presidents Eisenhower and Clinton (Peacock), teachers, a doctor, a reporter, a Klansman, politicians and more.

The ingeniously designed open-classroom set by Germán Cárdenas-Alaminos has racks to the side, with costumes designed by Robin I. Shane for quick changes. The soundscape by Bill Kirby underlines the action with period music and actual sound footage of key events. Finally, powerful singing heightens the emotional impact. Adiagha Faiza as Minnijean Brown and Ms. McGlone as Melba are particularly affecting.

It’s hard to believe that these events actually happened in the late 1950s, and that these nine students had the forbearance and courage to pave the way for others. Ernest Green (Brandon Rubin) was the first African American to graduate from Little Rock Central. But not all the students stayed. Some finished their schooling elsewhere. Oprah Winfrey brought most of the Little Rock Nine together to face a few of their former antagonists in 1996. There were apologies and hugs and some kind of reconciliation.

But to say that everything is now fine would be to ignore the work that remains to be done, as evidenced by recent events in Ferguson, Missouri. This is an important play with a brilliant cast. It’s an explosive and entertaining production that everyone should see. "

 

- Bob Brown: CentralJersey.com

 

"In September, 1957, American newspapers screamed disturbing headlines like “Arkansas Defies Supreme Court Edict” “National Guard Blocks School Integration,” and “Gov. Faubus Defies Integration Ruling,” and the people involved in the events behind the headlines populate “Little Rock,” written and directed by Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj, the season’s first production by Passage Theatre at Trenton’s historic Mill Hill Playhouse starting Friday through Oct. 26.

 

Maharaj calls his play a “docu-drama” and was inspired to write it after a visit to Little Rock Central High School, the scene of a national controversy in 1957 that eventually involved President Eisenhower who, at the request of Little Rock’s mayor, Woodrow Wilson Mann, sent federal troops to enforce integration and protect the nine African-American students who had been enrolled in this previously “whites only” high school. He also federalized the entire Arkansas National Guard which took them out of the control of Gov. Orval Faubus.

 

“I was in Little Rock directing a play and had a day off, so I paid a visit to the school. The halls were lined with pictures of the nine children who came to be called ‘the Little Rock nine,’ and there were also pictures of them as adults. Who they were then and who they became not only provoked my curiosity but took hold of my soul, and I thought of nothing else for two weeks. I did interviews with all of them, and these became the template for this play,” says Maharaj.

 

Ernest Green, the first of the group .to graduate, had his horrific first year experiences chronicled in Disney’s “The Ernest Green Story” in 1993, and all nine were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1999 by President Clinton. All were present at this play’s 2007 world premiere production at Arkansas Repertory Theatre in Little Rock and applauded Maharaj’s work.

 

“It tells the story of the children’s first year, and I call them children because the youngest was 14. They were all volunteers, and these nine had excellent academic and attendance records. In my interviews, I saw that they didn’t recognize at the time what importance, what scope their endurance would have. They just wanted to go to school.

 

“They experienced such terrible things. They were shouted at and screamed at, spat upon and had acid thrown at them. They and their families endured constant psychological and physical bullying. But they endured and cleared a path for others. One of my favorite Maya Angelou quotes is ‘History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again,’” says Maharaj.

 

“It’s a pity that so few young people today, black or white, have any knowledge of such cultural and political pioneers, people who worked to open doors that they so casually walk through every day now. In this play, they will meet those ordinary people, people who became extraordinary by their actions, with some cameos by more famous people like Thurgood Marshall and Lena Horne.”

 

Maharaj is pleased that his Trenton cast includes Gia McGlone who was also in the cast in Little Rock at the world premiere in 2007.

 

“Gia is one of the most talented and versatile actors I know. Among the roles she plays is Melba Pattillo Beals who was 15 at the time and later who wrote her own memoir titled ‘Warriors Don’t Cry,’ published in 1994 and a continuation of the events in that book in a second one called ‘White Is a State of Mind,’ in 1999.“ reports Maharaj.

 

McGlone, born in and still a resident of New Jersey, speaks about the changes made and the differences from that first production.

 

“The first time was exciting because it was during the recognition of the 50th anniversary of the event right where it happened. Now, it’s become more person oriented. The premiere was more about the Arkansas community and its politics than the play is now, and after that developmental production in Paolo Alto, I think it’s more direct, more focused on the nine students.

 

“McGlone described working with the current Trenton team of nine actors, most of whom play multiple roles.

 

“Of course, it’s history, and it’s serious, but it’s also a celebration that includes songs in praise of God and the joy of accomplishment. They all sacrificed so much as volunteers. Nobody forced them to go; they went to get the best public education they could and that the Supreme Count told them they were entitled to,” says McGlone.

 

She described how, on that first day, there was just one girl, Elizabeth Eckford, who walked to school because there was no telephone at her home to tell her not to go since the Arkansas National Guard had been called out to prevent integration. All nine were eventually admitted by the end of September.

 

“Can you imagine what that must have been like for that child? There was a mob of hundreds of people, screaming and spitting, and soldiers standing at the door to let her know she was not welcome because of her race."

 

-Ted Otten/Special to The Times : NJ.com

 

"A few years ago, Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj was directing a production of Dreamgirls at Little Rock Repertory Theatre in Little Rock, Arkansas, when he visited Little Rock Central High School.

 

The school was the setting for a vital chapter in the history of America’s civil rights movement. In 1957, nine African American students — known as The Little Rock Nine — began attending the school, as a result of the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, which ruled that separate educational facilities for African American and white students were unconstitutional.

 

The Little Rock Nine going to Central led to Governor Orval Faubus employing the Nation Guard to stop the students from entering the segregated school, leading to President Dwight D. Eisenhower to send the 101st Airborne.

 

Mr. Maharaj was aware of those events, but actually visiting the school brought the story home in a way pure facts never did.

 

"It was soul-stirring and I felt a real connection to space and the history," he says. "And when you walk into Little Rock Central High School, on the left side of the wall, there are pictures of nine African American students from 1957. And directly across on the right side of the wall are those same African Americans as adults. And I thought, I want to know what happened here. What is the story, why is that so significant."

That led to his play, Little Rock, which is being staged by Passage Theatre at the Mill Hill Playhouse in Trenton, Oct. 2-26.

 

Mr. Maharaj describes the play as a docu-drama. "It covers (the students’) parents and their own interpersonal relationships," he says. The play also introduces audiences to faculty members, and white students, those who supported the Little Rock Nine, and those who didn’t.

 

The play’s format introduces these people to the audience as adults, and they are looking back on their experiences and their younger selves.

 

"What happened here was a civil war and Little Rock Central High School was the battlefield. Like Gettysburg, the Little Rock Crisis of 1957 changed the United States of America forever," says Elizabeth Eckford in the play. "In September 1957, I was 15 years old. I don’t think at first my parents thought I was serious about going to Little Rock Central High School."

 

Ms. Eckford is the student pictured in famous photographs in which she is walking to school, books in hand, through a crowd of people, including a woman who appears to be hurling disapproval, or likely outright hatred, toward Ms. Eckford.

 

Other characters include Supreme Court Justices Thurgood Marshall and Earl Warren, Governor Faubus, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Tennessee Williams. In addition to the Little Rock Nine talking about their experiences, the play tells the story through events such as Mike Wallace interviewing Faubus, and Eisenhower addressing the nation.

 

Mr. Maharaj was not only interested in the history behind the events, he also found a personal connection to the story, being a person of color who says he benefited from the experiences of the Little Rock Nine.

 

"I kind of came to this country in pursuit of the American dream," he says. "Growing up in a West Indian household, education and faith and God were always stressed. Certainly, public education has played a major role in diversity. And public education has shaped how I see the world, and the root of that goes back to the Little Rock Nine because had that not happened in 1957, all the wonderful, wonderful contributions African Americans have made might not have happened, including the president sitting in our White House today."

 

Eight of the Little Rock Nine are still alive, Jefferson Thomas died in 2010. Part of Mr. Maharaj’s research involved interviewing the Little Rock Nine.

 

The play has been produced before, including in Little Rock, but Mr. Majaraj says the version coming to Passage is its own work.

 

"It’s a completely different play, the perspective, the dramaturgical work, the honing of the characters, and I know the Nine are very proud of it and they have been very much involved in the development of the script and helping me as researchers, sharing their stories," he says.

 

When asked if anything about the Little Rock Nine struck him as particularly interesting, Mr. Maharaj points out that they were children.

 

"They were 14, 15, and 16," he says. "And to have the governor (against you), and every day, feel like the entire state of Arkansas is against you, and that they were able to face it with such dignity and grace and humility — it made me realize that I come from that stock, and if they have that, I have that in me too." 

 

-  Anthony Stoeckert - NJ Packet Media Group

 

"An early scene or two obscures the potency of “Little Rock,” Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj’s poignant play about nine children who volunteer to integrate Little Rock’s Central High School three years after the Supreme Court’s monumental ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education, before the thoughtful and moving piece gains dramatic traction and glides its way towards an increasing and lasting impression.

 

Maharaj approaches “Little Rock” as a documentary. Much of its dialogue comes directly from judicial transcripts and interviews the playwright conducted with the “Little Rock Nine,” as the students ranging in age from 14 to 17 in 1957, came to be known. In his care for accuracy, Maharaj chooses to present his material chronologically, starting in 1954 with the recently appointed Chief Justice, Earl Warren, reading his Court’s unanimous decision on Brown, and ending with the morning in June 1958 when, in spite of death threats and other warnings, Ernest Green walks up the steps of a Central High podium to accept his diploma as the first, and one of the few, of the Nine to be graduated from Central.

 

Chronology has its place and, in general, serves Maharaj and “Little Rock” well as an organizing framework. At the top of the play, presented by Passage Theatre at Trenton’s Mill Hill Playhouse through October 26, and only at the top of the play, strict attention to the order events occur bogs down the action and delays what journalists, or documentarians, would refer to as the “lede.” A fear, soon dispelled, emerges that Maharaj is going to be dry and pedantic.

 

Earl Warren’s speech is significant, but it has no power. Nor does a scene in which Elizabeth Eckford, the student chosen as the first in line to enter Central, gets ready for her initial day and spars with her parents over her agreement to be a civil rights pioneer.

 

The scene in the Eckford home is interesting, but it doesn’t nearly relate the impact of Elizabeth’s first, aborted attempt to forge past jeering, expectorating pickets and get within Central’s doors, which are blocked by Arkansas National Guardsmen deployed by Orval Faubus, governor, in 1957, of the ironically nicknamed Natural State.

That scene of Elizabeth’s ordeal, full of ugly epithets and a strong depiction of raw hate, is Maharaj’s true opening. It shows in a tight, meaty nutshell what happened in Little Rock when all a teenage girl wanted, in her own words, was “to go to school.”

 

So much tension, so much angst, so much snarling self-righteousness from the vicious picketers, and so much genuine determination to thwart prejudice while enduring it from Elizabeth, are embedded in this sequence. It tells a history of not just one sad morning in Little Rock but of a fierce struggle between deniers and people who will not be denied that has gone on since tribes formed and one group belligerently claimed supremacy over another.

 

Little Rock is not an isolated case. It’s emblematic of so much despicable that occurred  before and after that September day when Elizabeth Eckford wanted only to report for classes and receive an education she and everyone knew to be more structured and academically sound than any she could hope to get at a segregated school that was separate, as an earlier Supreme Court case, Dred Scott, allowed,  but verifiably unequal.

In one moment on the Passage stage, when verbal taunting begins, and Elizabeth has to defend herself against propelled objects and physical assault, so much that Wordsworth denoted as man’s inhumanity to man is encapsulated.

 

Maharaj economically but  palpably captures the meanness, anger, and sincerity of the bigots. Three actors, with signs, yell insults and slogans, sometimes making  up rhymes and racist jokes thinking they are being witty, sometimes  being so direct as to hurl the n-word, ‘nigger,’ while spitting in Elizabeth’s face. Though only three, the picketers muster the force of a mob and make it clear, from a theatrical and historic point of view, what Elizabeth encountered.

Elizabeth, meanwhile, brooks the abuse while crying and pleading she only wants to go to school.

 

This is theatrical power and shows what the stage can do like no other form of storytelling. The scene, which I say once again, I would nominate for the opening of Maharaj’s play, is devastatingly effective. It grabs with force and clarity. You see with no doubt what hate is. Once it plays, “Little Rock” singes its way into your mind and stands as a testimony to one year of determined struggle that symbolizes centuries of wrongs being corrected by brave, positive action on the part of the suppressed who refuse to be relegated to second class citizenship. Other acts of uprising or rebellion are recalled, but the scene Maharaj writes and depicts is personal, a mob action directed at one 15-year-old child, and made more pointed by Gia McGlone’s affecting portrayal of Elizabeth Eckford being denigrated and defiled because of something that should be inconsequential, her pigment.

 

The reason Maharaj should begin “Little Rock” with Elizabeth’s first encounter with bigots goes beyond that sequence’s dramatic strength.

I think it should go first because it is more indicative of what “Little Rock” is and sets a more fitting and evocative tone for the rest of the work.

Hearing Earl Warren read a decision, seeing a news reporter interviewing Governor Faubus, and witnessing the byplay in the Eckford home make Maharaj’s play seem static and formulaic in a way “Little Rock” won’t prove to be. These passages deaden the proceedings and make you wonder if you’re destined for a stodgy history lesson instead of the vibrant play to come.

 

In spite of his wont to move forward chronologically, Maharaj would do better to adapt his format and show some scenes, like Warren’s announcement of Brown, in retrospect or as a preamble immediately followed by Elizabeth’s first day. This would set “Little Rock” roaring into its audience’s consciousness and make people sit up and take immediate attention, as they do once that powerful protest scene is unleashed. This is important because Maharaj has not just assembled facts and presented them blandly. Nor has he relied on the inherent drama in the Little Rock Nine to give his play poignancy. He has written a bona fide docudrama that incorporates reams of objective information but which derives its theatrical might from the detailed human aspects so many of the characters reveal, black or white.

 

Chronology continues to play an important structural role in “Little Rock” as you see Elizabeth, Ernest, and their classmates attend classes and reveal personal traits, such as Jefferson Thomas’s penchant for telling jokes that involve labored puns or Gloria Ray’s love for rock and roll and dancing, but it no longer impinges on the play’s action. Maharaj is smart to introduce his characters for what they are, teenagers, rather typical teenagers, who want something important for themselves and others but  who do not set out to be, or think of themselves, as heroes or, except for the ebullient Melba Patillo, particularly special.

 

Maharaj’s gift is he doesn’t let the Little Rock Nine get taken for granted or be lumped into a group. He individualizes them by giving each a time in the spotlight. This animates his characters and makes them and their stories immediate. He brings them forward, each in turn, starting with Elizabeth and ending with Ernest, to tell their memory about that watershed year at Central and about their lives in general. This provides much opportunity for dramatic byplay that jumps between time periods and becomes much more effective as a device for marshalling and revealing a long legion of facts than chronology alone was.

 

“Little Rock” is at its most pungent when McGlone and other actors representing the Nine tell their overall histories in their own words and when Maharaj depicts the physical and mental torment Elizabeth and her eight schoolmates endure at the hands of people, children like them, who have been too carefully taught to uphold engrained habits of racism and bigotry. Brad Ogden is particularly effective as a student named Ford who endlessly, and without any visible consequence, insults, picks on, and provokes members of the Nine. In a switch, Ogden is also warm, believable, and sweetly nerdy as Link, a student who befriends Melba, also played  by McGlone, because of their mutual admiration for and encyclopedic knowledge of  Shakespeare.

 

McGlone and Ogden are wonderful in a passage in which Maharaj sets a conversation in which they speak to and answer each other in lines from Shakespeare.

 

The sincerity of the nine stories, collected by Maharaj during almost a decade in which he conducted interviews and kept in touch with Elizabeth, Melba, Ernest, and the others, is the crux of Maharaj’s play. They supply the background that gives “Little Rock” a force that goes beyond documenting an historical event. By planting incidents that challenged, provoked, and caused doubt among the Nine within their personal stories, Maharaj makes clearer the fortitude it took for the volunteers to endure in a hostile environment, where they only protected for part of the day. Minniejean Brown lashes back after a lunchroom incident and is expelled from Central, causing opponents to distribute flyers that read, “One Down, Eight to Go.” Jefferson Thomas survives an incident in which he punches a taunting student because his act is considered to be in self-defense. Melba has acid thrown in her eyes. Maharaj lets us know 10 children originally signed up to integrate Little Rock schools, but one, Jane Hill, dropped out after she saw how savagely Elizabeth was attacked during her initial attempt to enter Central.

 

Once he begins to interweave the overall tale of the Little Rock Nine, including who they are when not confronted by constant racism, Maharaj provides a gripping play that captures a moment in history but is also an interesting study of people who lived through a seminal event.

Maharaj is helped by a uniformly talented cast, each of whom is called upon to play a number of roles — parents, administrators, NAACP leaders, and historical figures such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Louis Armstrong, and Martin Luther King — and does so with aplomb.

 

The effect is one of authenticity, and “Little Rock” has the documentary clout and engaging nature of an Anna Deveare Smith play or Moises Kaufman’s “Laramie Project,” both of which were models for Maharaj.

Every actor has a special moment.

 

Gia McGlone, playing the stalwart Elizabeth and spirited Melba, has some of the biggest scenes in “Little Rock” and makes her appearances count. She is also quite touching in her character’s reaction when she rolls down a car window, expecting to give assistance to a driver who needs directions and gets spat by one of the Nine’s classmates.

 

Bliss Griffin plays two of the quieter of the Nine, but she endows Carlotta Walls, the youngest of the group, and Thelma Mothershed with distinct characteristics that are quite winning. Griffin also gives mature dignity to Daisy Bates, the Little Rock civil rights leader, and NAACP officer, who asks the students to volunteer to go to Central and who arranges the integration process with the superintendent of schools, who is countermanded by Gov. Faubus.

 

Like Brad Ogden, Annie Grier has the opportunity to play two students with different attitudes towards the Nine. She baits in one scene, and comes to the rescue in another by defying her abusing boyfriend and taking the side of a black students against him. Grier also scores as a school official who protects the Nine on the first day they make it through to Central as a group.

 

No-nonsense Minniejean Brown and bobby soxer Gloria Ray allow Adiagha Faizah a variety of moods and stances. Both of her characters are feisty, Minniejean as a girl with self-esteem who isn’t going to take much nonsense from her taunters, and Gloria as the popular Everygirl, who wants a happy teenage life and an education she can pass on to others.

Damian Norfleet gives great dignity to Terrence Roberts, the most bookish of the Nine and one who rankles the group’s detractors by excelling in his classes. Norfleet shows an alternative side to his acting ability as Ellis Thomas, Jefferson’s father, who has a testy scene with the Bateses after his son retaliates to a sucker punch and is on the brink of being expelled from Central.

 

Shabazz Green has a good time reeling off Jefferson’s bad jokes as he demonstrates the easygoing, happy-go-lucky young man Jefferson is, and tries to be, even when Ogden’s relentless bully, Ford, makes it difficult. Green does a wonderful impersonation of Louis Armstrong, who comes out in support of the Nine.

 

Brandon Rubin shows the commitment of Ernest Green, the only senior among the Nine and the one who receives his hard-earned diploma from Central in dead silence, broken only when one man begins applauding, that one man being Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

Jon L. Peacock has the widest range of roles, playing everyone from Gov. Faubus to Bill Clinton. Peacock excels in all of his parts, both the one that stands out is Danny, a Guardsman whose assignment is to protect Carlotta Wills from harm and who expresses his support of the missions he and Carlotta are carrying out .

 

Maharaj blends a lot into “Little Rock,” and he does so in an amusing, compelling fashion that allow you to become familiar with a large ensemble of characters and to understand what each feels individually and as a member of an emblematic group.

 

History, in the form of Warren’s reading and a Faubus interview, may seem to impinge until Elizabeth’s encounter with the mob accelerates “Little Rock” into full gear, but Maharaj will prove deft in finding ways to include all the background information that gives the Little Rock Nine story additional texture.

 

We learn, mostly through the statements of the Nine in later life, that Gov. Faubus closed all Little Rock schools in 1958, the year after the Nine integrated Central, as a tactic to stall any further integration and to use his authority to one-up the Federal government, represented by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who is originally criticized for acting too slowly.

Eisenhower plays a major role in the Little Rock story. He is the one who appointed Earl Warren to the Supreme Court, after Fred Vinson, the Chief Justice when Ike took office, left the Court with Brown yet to be heard. He also, in response to Faubus utilizing Arkansas’ National Guard, federalizes that unit, taking it under his purview as U.S. Commander in Chief, and sends the 101st Airborne division of the U.S. Army to accompany Elizabeth Eckford and her classmates to the door of Central.

 

Because Faubus closed Little Rock schools, members of the Nine went far afield to continue their education. Many remained in their new hometowns of St. Louis, Kansas City, New York, and Los Angeles. This is all reported in the spotlight” sequences.  Carlotta Wills, because she was 14, was one who returned to Central when schools reopened and  earned her diploma there.

 

Brown vs. Board of Education has nothing to do with Little Rock until Daisy Bates chooses to make a stand there in 1957. It was ruled upon in 1954 and involves the school district of Topeka, Kansas. Relevant to Passage, one of the Warren Court’s precedents in deciding Brown was a 1944 case, Hedgepeth-Willams, that declares segregation of Trenton schools violated equal rights statutes.

 

All of these historical facts are seamlessly woven into Maharaj’s script.

The set design by Germán Cárdenas-Alaminos is a basic classroom with extra spaces for playing intimate scenes.

 

Robin I. Shane’s costumes capture the time and the characters. The dress Elizabeth wears in the famous picture from her first attempt to enter Central, is meticulously rendered, and all of the clothing seems perfect for the character wearing it."

 

- NealsPaper : Phindie.com