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Little Rock — Passage Theatre at Mill Hill Playhouse

untitled (108)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.

“Little Rock” runs through Sunday, October 26 at Passage Theatre, housed in the Mill Hill Playhouse, 205 E. Front Street, in Trenton, N.J.  Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursday to Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $35 to $30 and can be obtained by calling 609-392-0766 or by visiting www.passagetheatre.org.

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