“We’ll understand it all, by and by”
First off, should you see it? - Yes. Most definitely yes.
I almost got through this performance without crying.
Tears of joy.
Very rarely in theater do you get a glimpse of the actor underneath the character when it doesn’t draw you out of the play. Most often, such moments are accidents, mistakes. In the civil rights musical “Little Rock, 1957” from Youth Performance Company, there is such a moment, and it’s quite deliberate. But it drives the point of the performance home with such a vengeance that it makes you catch your breath. And maybe say a little prayer of thanks.
“Little Rock, 1957” centers on the stories of the Little Rock Nine - nine young African-American high school students who volunteered to be part of the U.S. government’s social experiment in school integration. The high school in Little Rock, Arkansas was part of the first phase of integration three years after the landmark Supreme Court decision “Brown vs. Board of Education.” The court made it clear that when it came to education, “separate but equal” was no longer good enough. Blacks and whites must be brought together under the same roof to learn, whether they liked it or not.
The audience gets two warnings about the language in “Little Rock, 1957” - one in the program, and one in the pre-show announcement from the director, YPC Artistic Director Jacie Knight.
“Little Rock, 1957 is about race relations in the 1950s,” says the program note. “As a chronicle of a particular place and time, the show contains racial epithets. YPC neither condones nor supports their use, but finds them necessary to the accurate telling of this story.”
“Contains racial epithets” is putting it mildly. The play is littered with them. Sambo, monkey, jiggaboo, and, of course, n**ger. (No, I don’t even want to type it.) Verbal violence, frequent and lacerating, both spoken and sung, is only part of it. At some point during the play, nearly every one of the white cast members pushes, shoves, throws things at, spits on or slaps one or more of the black cast members. The abuse is so convincing that one starts to worry, not just about the characters, but the actors themselves, on both sides of the violence. Not just that someone might get physically hurt, but that the play might be taking a real emotional toll on everyone involved.
Then, there’s that moment at the end of the production when the mask slips away.
In the final musical number, the Little Rock Nine are all singing an anthem to “one nation, one people.” Once they get it going, the white cast members slowly begin to join them onstage, from all sides of the house. But they don’t just stand together. Those who hurled the worst of the abuse enter almost sheepishly, nervous not about the audience, but about their fellow castmates. There is no hugging. Things, wisely, never get that sentimental. But there a sidelong glances. A light hand takes a dark hand. A black arm is thrown over a white shoulder. The audience can see in those moments that the cast is literally, physically relieved to not be required to pretend to hate each other anymore. And the singing grows louder, and stronger - again, not over the top, just a force that will no longer be held back. They smile. Their faces are bright, full of hope and determination. And when I see one of the male cast members fighting with everything he’s got not to cry, and succeeding, that’s when my face starts to get wet. Those last minutes are enormously powerful.
They wouldn’t be if the story that came before weren’t such a skillfully executed journey. “Little Rock, 1957” shows, as one of the artistic team puts it, “the fire these young people had to walk through” to make change happen. It took the nine students weeks just to get in the school building, and then still longer to be able to get through an entire day of classes. Even then, they weren’t allowed to participate in extracurricular activities, despite their many artistic and athletic gifts, not even a student talent show. The governor of Arkansas himself tried to block the students and integration at every turn, with moves that made him wildly popular with the majority of white voters (so much so that he was re-elected to three terms). He caused things to be so difficult that the U.S. military finally had to be called in, flying jets overhead as they marched into town, to make sure the students got to school every day, until things settled down - on the surface.
The play begins with an extended musical set piece which essentially lays out the state of race relations in 1950s Arkansas from both sides - no small feat. The music is built on the sturdy foundation of old spiritual standards (so familiar to some in the audience they couldn’t help singing along quietly in solidarity - which I must admit is the sort of involuntary audience participation I kind of like). The original music and lyrics are by Steven Joseph Hutton and Kahlil Queen (the latter of whom also served as music director, choreographer, and keyboardist in the show band - phew). One of the things I appreciated about the musical aspect of the production was that it didn’t feel compelled to give us a lot of musical “numbers.” There are show-stopping moments, to be sure, but “Little Rock, 1957” isn’t structured like a traditional musical. The music and singing acts more like connective tissue in many places between scenes than being the sole purpose of the scenes themselves. Language, even nasty language, set to music, almost lets the audience off the hook too easily. So “Little Rock, 1957” often has the music stand to the side and let the words have their full impact.
Those words are the product of E.J. McGuire. The script has gone through several evolutions over the years since it was first produced by Youth Performance Company as the result of an improvisational workshop process. This latest incarnation chooses to focus on three of the Little Rock Nine, giving the sprawling story and cast of characters three anchors around which to focus the narrative energy. It’s a smart move.
The first of the three is Elizabeth Eckford (Shenece Bass). Because Elizabeth’s family didn’t have a phone, she didn’t get the group message warning against trying to head out to school on her own. Bass’ performance turns from one of naive optimism, to one of fear and disillusionment when confronted by the angry crowds of protestors who refuse to let her enter the school. The reality of the battle they all have ahead of them is crystallized in that moment when Bass stands alone against the community and must ultimately back away for her own safety.
The second “act” - once they’re through the doors and trying to actually get an education - centers on Minnijean Brown (Iman Fears). Of the nine, she seems to have the hardest time just playing along, taking the abuse and being quiet about it. When the school talent show auditions come along, so does a possible friendship with with a white girl named Bootsie (Asia Thornton). When both sets of hopes are dashed, Minnijean has had enough. That’s when one of the show-stoppers comes into play. Fears’ act of defiance as Minnijean finally stands up for herself, refusing any longer to play the “good, quiet, clean little negro” anymore, is just as cathartic for the audience as it is for her. But it’s not without its consequences.
The last leg of the journey highlights Ernest Green (Kinaundrae Lee). As one of the older members of the group, he steps up as a leader of the nine, and will have the distinction of being the first black student to graduate from their new school - if he’s allowed to live that long. Concern on this last count mounts when his innocent friendship with progressive white student Jane (Rebecca Hurd) is misinterpreted and subjected to intense scrutiny and debate. This results in an amusing but unsettling kangaroo court musical number putting both young people on trial, where the truth is frequently turned inside out.
Humor is a key weapon here, both of the script and the Little Rock Nine themselves. Even well-meaning gestures by fellow students like class president Craig (Tyler Hanlon) can lead to hilariously awkward moments - like the first scene in the cafeteria where, after some of the Nine are invited by Craig to join them at their table to eat, no one can seem to think of anything to say, and no one seems to have much of an appetite. The silences and attempts to fill them become progressively more funny - and it’s humor that is all the funnier because it springs from character.
Special mention must also be made of Shelbi Montgomery as Thelma Mothershed, who often acts as the musical leader of the Little Rock Nine, providing much of the soulful spiritual singing that ties the episodic nature of the script together. Her voice regularly becomes a beacon, inspiring the story and those in it to keep moving forward.
A final key moment which sticks with me puts the spotlight squarely on Kaitlyn Andrews as Melba Patillo. A quieter member of the Nine, she takes one of the more shocking hits. When young redheaded bigot Darlene (Devon Solorow) takes offense at Melba’s presence, Darlene slaps Melba across the face. It didn’t look like a stage slap to me, or anyone else in the audience. It looked like the actress took a direct hit, and a stinging one. In the collective gasp of reaction, Melba’s retort was nearly lost. At first, I thought to myself, “She couldn’t have said ‘f**k you’ - I’d like her to. She deserves to. But I don’t think she would.”
Darlene advances on Melba again - “What did you say?”
Melba quietly stands her ground. Not defiant, just resolved - “Thank you.”
And in that moment, thanks to Andrews, Melba became one of my favorite characters. I don’t think I’d have been able to turn the other cheek and defuse the situation so forcefully. It’s a nice piece of work, and milestone in their journey, ever so incrementally, toward acceptance - by some. Solorow’s Darlene is unrelenting right to the end, in a fearlessly unsympathetic performance. Jaw-dropping would be a fitting adjective for the response prompted by her good work at being so bad.
It’s not a perfect production, but then what production is? Since the actors aren’t mic’d, some are better at projecting and enunciating than others, but it’s early days in the run, and that sort of thing will most likely get smoothed out as the cast gets used to working the crowd. The large ensemble fills the stage well, but there were times when I wondered if the time spent moving lockers and cafeteria tables on and off the stage (however swiftly) might have been eliminated by allowing more room for one or more of those elements to live on the set permanently, since they get such regular use. The episodic nature of the text requires a number of scene changes, most of which are covered by the sound design (by Tyrus A. Thompson) and the singers and the band (Matt Belz on Bass and Eric Domke on Drums, joining composer/lyricist Queen). But time and momentum savings wherever one can find them in use of the space are always good things.
The rest of the ensemble deserves mention by name because without them, the more central characters would have no context - no friends, no allies, no adversaries. The challenges the Little Rock Nine encountered are very real because they live and breathe in Nick Clark, Anna Esposito, Koby Felman, Jessica Ilaug, Mollay Margaret Johnson, Steven Lewer, Morgan Motzel, Ethan Nienaber, Katey Singer, Brigitta Smith, and Bryan Thornton, as well as all those previously mentioned above. And the Little Rock Nine would be most incomplete without the contributions of Brandon Cobb, Pelita Murumba, Cydni Shepard, and Isaac Sundberg.
I’ve said this time and again to other people about Youth Performance Company - the reason I admire their work so much is that they require so much of their performers. Or rather, they treat them like professional adults. Some theater for young audiences that I’ve seen over the years seems content merely to get young people up on stage - “Oh, isn’t that cute? They’re acting.” YPC asks for something more than that. They desire a professional production, and they get more well-rounded performances out of their young actors because of it. I have never cringed, or looked at my watch during a Youth Performance Company production. I’ve just seen really good theater. Every time. “Little Rock, 1957” is no exception. The alumni of YPC get a great schooling in the ways of theater, and take that into their professional lives. Some even circle back around and return the favor - McGuire, Hutton and Queen are all former YPC company members themselves. And they’ve created quite a moving document of a time that’s past, but of a problem we still face in the present.
The opening of the play has one of the Little Rock Nine opening a book and looking through it, as slides of past atrocities of the slave trade are projected on the back wall of the set. Come the ending, there are pictures of the Little Rock Nine, then and now. I’ve been told some people on the “Little Rock” team had to work very hard to resist the urge to include a photo of President Obama. The instinct was correct. The production didn’t need to show his picture. Our current president was surely on everyone’s mind already. The latest turn along our country’s oftentimes rocky path of race relations was part of the subtext running through this entire evening. Gender, religion, color, sexual orientation - there’s still a lot of healing to be done, inequities to correct. But it’s good to reflect on the occasional hard-fought but meaningful victories along the way. “Little Rock, 1957” allows us to do that.
At the emotional high point of graduation for one character, an audience member shouted out, “Tell them about it!” It was like being in the best kind of church.
Tell them about it, indeed. “Little Rock, 1957” does just that.
Like the director’s note in the program says, “History is made by ordinary people who do extraordinary things. What will you do?”
You might start by seeing and being inspired by this musical.
I’m glad I did. Judging by the standing ovation, the rest of the audience was, too.
Very Highly Recommended.
Youth Performance Company’s production of “Little Rock, 1957” runs through Sunday, March 1, 2009. Performances are at Howard Conn Fine Arts Center, 1900 Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis. There are a lot of school week matinees (Tuesdays thru Fridays at both 10am and 12:30pm), but there are also showtimes for the workaday adults and families among us as well. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm, and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $12 for adults, $10 for children and seniors. Call 612-623-9180 or visit www.youthperformanceco.com for reservations and more information.