Little Rock Confronts The Unyielding Horror Of Racism
By George Kevin Jordan
Imagine any horror movie you watched of late. It doesn’t matter which one, the results are the same. The protagonists are usually teenagers navigating through life, social, sexual, and interpersonal relationships. There are usually archetypes standing in for characters. Yes we came to love and respect Johnny Depp, and Leonardo DiCaprio as serious actors. But when they starred in NIghtmare on Elm Streetand Critters 3, respectively, they were fodder for the main character of their films – the monsters.
In horror movies the monster is what people pay money to see. Will these children survive the reincarnated guy with the chainsaw fetish? Or what about that creature that feeds off of the fear of youth. According to the-numbers.com horror movie revenue has seen a steady increase in gross revenue over the last few years. Sales went from $254 Million in 2014 to over $1Billion in 2017.
We love to be scared. We love the adrenaline rush of a sudden jump cut on the screen. We love the predictability of the surprise in horror. We know someone is going to get it. But our hero is going to survive. And besides. It’s not real right?
What if you were a teeenager, and your worst nightmare were not a fiction of a writer trying to pay off his beach house in Laguna Beach, but a real monster.
In LIttle Rock, the play set in the eye of the integration storm between September 4th 1957 and May 27th 1958, the monster is more than real. Racism and it’s partner in crime, hate, play out in the lives of this community, but particularly a group of teenagers referred to as the “Little Rock Nine.”
The play opened Thursday at the Sheen Center, 18 Bleeker St, New York, NY and runs through September 8th 2018.
Writer and director Rejendra Ramoon Maharaj must have been weaned on horror films, because he is able to highlight the sheer terror that these teenagers, kids, trying to attend school, face.
The play opens with a young girl, ready for her first day of school. Anyone with a memory cortex, can remember how scary starting a new school can be. Will anyone talk to you? Will anyone sit next to you at lunch? Will the homework be too much too fast? Now add these questions.
Will someone call me a nigger?
Will someone hit me?
Will someone hurt me?
Will I die today?
Elizabeth Eckford, played by Anita Welch, is suddenly heckled, terrorized, called everything but a child of God. All in the pursuit of integration. The historical account of the “Little Rock Nine” is settled in history books. Thrust into the forefront of a civil rights fight for integration of schools, nine black kids chose to attend Central HIgh School in LIttle Rock Arkansas. All of a sudden, these kids are forced to be activists, heroes, archetypes for the cause. Because again the monster is the real character.
The narrative arc follows the students as they literally try to stay alive long enough for Ernest Green, played by Charlie Hudson III, to finish his last year of high school and graduate. In the most optimistic circumstances this would be a hard feat. When this group gathers for the first day of school, however, they are ushered into the boiler room of the school because a mob has gathered outside and they want blood. And the white students inside are scouring the halls looking for the kids.
During the the scene an officer casually says that if they offer up one student to be hanged, the other eight will be able to go free. He says this like it is a viable option.
Little Rock does a superb job of making the fear and uncertainty of black life a palpable emotion throughout the theater. And like most harrowing situations humor fills the large chasm that fear has left behind. Jefferson Allison Thomas, played by Justin Cunningham offers up much needed relief with a series of corny jokes about the states in the U.S.A.
“Which state has the smallest drink?” Jefferson says during a tension filled scene, “Minnesota.” The group laughs. They get frustrated with Jefferson’s seemly glib attitude, until they realize he is telling jokes as a release from the terror of facing the reality before him. The audience comes to rely on his jokes to transition the seemingly endless racial epitaphs and violence that assault the Nine.
Minijean Brown, played with innocence and heart by Shanice WIlliams, also lightens the mood as she tries to channel Debbie Reynolds, and pop music in order to ignore the bubbling rage that surrounds her.
The performers work hard to pull out the humanity of the historical figures they portray. Not that these people are not flesh and blood humans. It’s just that sometimes black folks fall behind the shadow of heroism, never really getting a chance to be people. The horror of racism can sometimes overpower the stage. But the Little Rock Nine do their best to prove their humanity in the play and on the stage.
The hardest thing to grapple with about LIttle Rockis just how similar marginalizing of these black kids is to the current state of affairs. Sports figures vilified for taking a knee to recognize violence again our people. Whole nations diminished by our current administration. Not only are we still being killed at the hands of the ones charged to protect us, but our outrage is still an offense in itself.
Little Rockhighlights the fragility of blackness in America. We are strong people but the forces against us, can pull us down. But with then or now, we have to remember that the monster may be big and powerful. But as soon as you face it, it gets easier to defeat it. LIttle Rock asks this question of all of us – will we as a country ever truly turn around and face our monster?
For more information about the show and tickets please visit here.