In 1957, nine black high school students in Little Rock, Ark., made national headlines. As the first black students at the newly integrated Central High School, they faced lines of racist protesters and bullying from fellow students every day they walked the halls of their new school. Eventually, one black student fought back — and changed the conversation about desegregation forever.
The story of “The Little Rock Nine” is familiar history. But, as some Coterie actors found out, that history may be fading away.
“When I told my kids about the title, they didn’t know immediately what I was talking about,” actor Ron Lackey said. “I think saying ‘The Little Rock Nine’ should, in kids’ minds, spark some sort of remembrance of something, and it didn’t for my kids.”
So, despite a busy schedule, Lackey knew he had to be a part of “The Nine Who Dared: Courage in Little Rock,” the Coterie’s new production starting Sept. 20. Geared toward educating students (and the general public), the play becomes an interactive town hall, where the audience decides what should happen next.
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“We go back in time and see, essentially, testimony of two students of exactly what happened in the fall semester,” director Jeff Church said. “These historical plays are really interesting ways for us to foster a dialogue, and history always relates to the time we live in now. … And sometimes history is different than you think.”
“The Nine Who Dared” presents several points of view, encouraging audiences to weigh the repercussions of both continuing integration or delaying until conditions are safer. At the end of a 50-minute scripted play, viewers share their thoughts in a 20-minute forum, asking questions of the characters to determine the next step.
Such forums are a tried-and-true method at the Coterie, especially with older students (for this show, Church, the Coterie’s producing artistic director, recommends ages 12 and older due to the use of the N-word). In 2014, the theater used the same method in “Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.” But this time the civil rights story is portrayed by characters closer to the audience’s age.
“The story is told by kids, so that’s a great vehicle to grab (young audiences) immediately,” said Lackey, who plays town hall facilitator the Rev. Crenchaw and then-civil rights lawyer Thurgood Marshall, who had argued the Brown v. Board of Education case that opened schools to integration three years earlier. “The challenge is you have to get the kids to invest right from the beginning.”
The show is based on “Warriors Don’t Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock’s Central High,” by Melba Pattillo Beals, who was 16 when she became one of the Little Rock Nine. Wendy Lement, Derek Nelson and Cliff Odle wrote the play, created by Boston’s Theatre Espresso, which specializes in educational dramas.
With Pattillo Beals’ compelling stories, the actors hope the performance won’t just be an excuse for students to get out of class. Dianne Yvette plays the teen activist, one of the older students from the Little Rock Nine who, in the play, act as narrators.
Yvette said she’s excited to present the story to younger audiences who have no context for the arguments made against integrating schools.
“There’s a line in there where one of the parents says, ‘Next thing you know, black boys and white girls will be dancing together at school functions,’ ” Yvette said.
“They have no connection to that,” Lackey added, “and just hearing that in context will be, ‘No way; there’s no way they thought that.’ ”
Other prominent characters in the play include Minnijean Brown (played by Rasheedat “Ras” Badejo), who stands up to her bullies and is eventually expelled, and Daisy Bates (Sherri Roulette-Mosley), the black newspaper publisher who documented the desegregation of Central High School and all of Arkansas.
Roulette-Mosley, who has a son of her own, says she would love to protect children from the affronts of the past but understands the play’s lessons are more important.
“It’s a luxury that we take for granted that you can walk down halls now without (enduring) what the students had (to) back then,” she said. “They may not be able to articulate it in that way in their minds … but when they’re able to sit at the lunch table without soup being poured on their heads and not being called names … they’ll be able to understand it’s a luxury, and it should not be taken for granted, and it should not be wasted.”