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When Bob Hupp, the Rep's producing artistic director, asked the Brooklyn-based director Rajendra Maharaj to come to Arkansas to direct the theater's 2004 production of “Dreamgirls,” Maharaj was hesitant. “I was like, ‘Little Rock? I don't really know the theater,'” he recalled in a recent interview.
But Maharaj didn't just take the post — he became something of a Rep staple. He returned in 2006 to direct the theater's production of “Intimate Apparel.” He was a key player in organizing last month's Voices at the River festival. Now he presents “The Legacy Project: It Happened in Little Rock,” a multimedia play — a docudrama, as Maharaj terms it — with the Little Rock Nine at its axis.
While the work focuses on one of the most high-profile clashes of the Civil Rights Era, its themes reach beyond the events of September 1957. “A lot of people are saying, ‘Well, it's another story about the Nine,'” said Maharaj. “It really isn't about the Nine — it's about the collective.” What “It Happened in Little Rock” sets out to do, he explained, is to explore how the city reacted to the crisis and how its racial attitudes over the past 50 years have changed as a result.
How does one tackle such a complex subject in a 90-minute play? Complexly, apparently. “It Happened in Little Rock” has a dramatis personae of over a hundred roles — all of which are played by only 10 actors, who sing and dance as well as speak. The focal character in this ensemble is a reporter covering the crisis for the New York-based Amsterdam News, played by Dustin Owens. Maharaj got the idea for the protagonist from a photo of a black journalist being kicked while reporting on the crisis at Central.
Owens also portrays the reporter's present-day counterpart, an artist based on Maharaj himself. The use of characters mirrored across time is a device the play employs to explore the evolution of ideas about race. Maharaj explained the play's temporal shifts: “As [Owens] travels stage left he's in '57, and it's all black and white and film noir and very film-reel 1950s. Then when he crosses stage right he's in a town hall meeting sponsored by the community justice league at Central High School and people are talking about race. I created a hybrid of their reality in 1957 and my reality in 2007 coming down [to Arkansas].”
Maharaj cited “The Laramie Project” as an example of the docudrama form, which pairs video projection with stage acting. As did the creators of that play, which explores a Wyoming town's reaction to the murder of Matthew Shepard, Maharaj conducted and videotaped hundreds of interviews, portions of which are projected onto the screen as a part of the production. He talked not only with people involved in the crisis, including five members of the Nine, but also with current Central students who shed light on how race still plays a role at the school. “It's basically a living quilt,” he said of the play, “because it's all these different voices talking.”
“It Happened in Little Rock” is the product of three years' research, which included plenty of reading and archive-scouring in addition to interviews. The idea for the play came to Maharaj during his first stint with the Rep.
“I had a day off when I was doing “Dreamgirls,” and I went to Central, and I was just profoundly moved,” he said. “I mean, as I started to approach the school and walked the steps that they took, literally my heart started to palpitate. When I walked in, I can only describe it as an out-of-body experience. The school hasn't changed. It's literally a museum from 1957. Then to walk in and see the Nine on placards and pictures from '57 and then who they are today as adults — that was really the inspiration for the play.”
What Maharaj found in his research didn't always jell with stereotypes of the South. “What's surprising to me is that the South has addressed race, in a way, more openly than the North,” said Maharaj. “Interesting conversations started to form in terms of how we really identify and feel about race and how Little Rock is more America than, for example, my reality in New York in terms of how people have dealt with race and also have dealt with history.”
Yet he also noted how, even in the face of progress, how little some things seem to have changed. “Fifty years later to see the cafeteria still divided racially, and see the question about African Americans in AP classes, but then to see an African American kid and a white girl kissing on the steps — [there are] all these contradictions.”
Most of the play's actors come from outside Arkansas, so Maharaj began his read-throughs by giving them a crash course on the Little Rock Nine. When the cast arrived in Little Rock in late August, Maharaj took them on a surprise tour of Central High and the adjacent museum. He acted the dual role of civics teacher and motivational speaker as he ushered the cast past photos of the people they were to depict onstage. “We're telling people's truth, we're telling people's lives — we can't fail in that,” Maharaj explained to the troupe. “They had to use the constitution and the Supreme Court — the highest law of the land — because of what the governor did.”
Four weeks and many rehearsals later, “It Happened in Little Rock” opens on Friday. Although the play is premiering in the city where reactions to it will be most personal, Maharaj hopes that it lives on past its Rep staging. Much as “The Laramie Project” has fueled discussion about gay rights, “It Happened in Little Rock” could get people talking about how race relations have developed nationally over the past half century. Indeed, talk is exactly what the play is aiming for. “This is really a conversation,” Maharaj said. “I have no magic answers or philosophies that are going to change the world.”
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