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Little Rock

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - June 14, 2018

The Cast
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Trust the kids. It's their story. Get out of the way and let them tell it. That's what I kept wanting to say to playwright Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj about Little Rock, the passionate and harrowing, if occasionally bloated, drama at the Sheen Center that recounts the true story of a group of courageous history-making African American teenagers known collectively as "The Little Rock Nine."

The play wrests its narrative from the bland and watered-down version to be found in U. S. history textbooks. We are meant to understand in no uncertain terms what it was like as these students became the first to break the deep-rooted barrier of racial segregation in the public schools of Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957. This extraordinarily significant event followed three years of foot-dragging by Arkansas politicians after the U. S. Supreme Court's unanimous decision in the landmark case of Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. In it, the Court declared that school segregation violated the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. But it also left open a loophole when it vaguely ordered U. S. public schools to desegregate "with all deliberate speed," but without any specified timetable.

When the play opens, the Little Rock School Board has run out of stalling tactics and has reluctantly agreed to allow a group of volunteer African American students to transfer from their own segregated schools to what was until that point the whites-only Central High School. The reaction of many in the white community is immediate and explosive. We're not more than a couple of minutes in when we are confronted with an angry mob shouting horrible racist epithets, brandishing baseball bats, and making threats: "Kill the nigger nine!" and "Lynch her!"

Act I of the play deals with those early weeks. The dangers posed by the crazed crowd surrounding the school prevent the students from getting past the sidewalk. And while Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus calls in the National Guard to maintain peace, his goal is to use the Guard to keep the students out. Put on the spot during a televised interview, the governor says he will abide by the law "if it could be accomplished in a peaceful manner," meaning he plans to delay things indefinitely. It finally takes the intervention of President Eisenhower, who sends in federal troops to enforce the law.

The playwright Mr. Maharaj, who also directs, handles this difficult material with great skill and clarity, and he is most fortunate in his nine-member cast, who take on some 50 different roles between them and manage to make most of them come realistically to life as individuals. The first act ends with the students triumphantly going through the front door of the school, though sadly they have to be accompanied by armed troops.

The second half of the play looks at what is going on inside the school, where it becomes quite obvious that "desegregation" is not to be confused with "integration." The black teenagers are isolated and subjected to threats and verbal and physical bullying, with only a handful of white students and teachers as allies. Problematically, though, the play starts to fill up with a number of tangential elements that distract from the main story and from the authenticity and realism that are its greatest strengths.

There are places where playwright Maharaj and director Maharaj take too much delight in one another's company, and where another pair of eyes would be most helpful at keeping things on track. There is, for example, an element of satire that enters the picture when one of the black students rhapsodizes over her adoration of Pat Boone and Debbie Reynolds; a discussion about how wonderful it would be to have a black President ("Are you batty? White folks would lose their minds!"); and many "guest appearances" by the likes of newsman Mike Wallace, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and Jackie Robinson. The play is also supported by the inclusion of Civil Rights-era songs like "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize," "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around," and "We Shall Overcome" that members of the cast more than do justice to in performing, but there is also, needlessly, a silly rendition of "Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)."

These interludes, which likely are intended to break up the steady stream of troubling episodes, get to be distracting after a while. It would serve the play better by reining them in and staying out of the way of the students' stories. The real Little Rock Nine are the true heroes, each and every one: Ernest Green (the first black student to graduate from Central High), Elizabeth Eckford, Jefferson Thomas, Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Minnijean Brown, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Thelma Mothershed, and Melba Pattillo Beals.

Little Rock
Through September 8
The Sheen Center for Thought & Culture, 18 Bleecker Street
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