“The Nine Who Dared: Courage in Little Rock” is an educational experience. After all, anything by the Coterie theater must be more than just an excuse to get out of class for its student audiences.
But it doesn’t have to hit audiences so hard over the head.
In its town hall setting, “The Nine Who Dared” struggles to transcend its duty as a learning piece to be a true theatrical experience. In the play, two black students use flashbacks, played out onstage, to tell the audience (here, serving as community members) about their efforts in 1957 to integrate Central High School.
The Little Rock Nine face protesters on their first day of class, bullies in the classroom and eventually the expulsion of one of their own. They’re harrowing moments, but the constant narration by the older students (Dianne Yvette as Melba Pattillo and Donovan Woods as Ernest Green) distracts from what could have been a more powerful tale.
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To its credit, this is a performance designed to educate students about the Little Rock integration crisis, and the writing does that well. Even more, during Friday’s matinee it got students thinking — and interacting.
Ron Lackey serves as a steadfast moderator in the character of the Rev. Crenchaw, who challenges the audience at the beginning and again at the end to decide what’s best: immediately reinstating the students who, for their own safety, have been pulled out of school, or delaying further integration until it’s safer.
Two especially strong performances highlight two sides of the debate. As NAACP president Daisy Bates, Sherri Roulette-Mosley stands as a pillar of strength for the young black students she protects. And Leah Swank-Miller, as vice principal Huckaby, endows a refreshing subtlety to a show that’s so clearly, shall we say, black and white. Her character wants to do the right thing, but small expressions of doubt give her a depth that is missing from other white characters in the play.
But, after all, the focus of this show is the black students. They all give commendable performances, but Rasheedat Badejo as Minnijean Brown strikes a nerve as the student who just can’t take it anymore. In Badejo’s hands, Brown is feisty and defiant while simultaneously heartbreakingly vulnerable. When she calls a white bully “trash,” a resounding “oh” came from students in the audience who, up until then, seemed only halfheartedly interested in what to them is certainly ancient history.
And it may well seem like another world to them, stepping into the 1957 Arkansas town hall set, designed by Tristan James. Though the stage, designed in the round, is fairly small, a faded Confederate flag painted on the wood floor adds an immensity and doesn’t let audiences forget where they are. It’s the most striking part of the set, which also features bulletins proclaiming “Race mixing is communism” and other propaganda. The costumes are distinctly ’50s but not alienatingly so; they’re accents to the actors’ performances.
When the show comes to an end, the students (a large, predominantly white middle-school group and a smaller, multiracial high school group) were asked to express their thoughts and ask questions of the actors, who stayed in character. Badejo, who explained what happened to her character after she was expelled, delivered heart-wrenching, silent tears long after the spotlight had shifted to another actor.
To be fair, “The Nine Who Dared” does not have to be truly engaging theater. For children, it’s an opportunity to live through the crisis of 1957 Little Rock in a way their history books can’t give them. Adult audiences shouldn’t necessarily write it off, either; the show may be a reminder of how far we’ve come since 1957 but, as one student pointed out with the show’s similarities to today, it’s also a reminder of how far we still have to go.
Kate Miller: 816-234-4077, @_Kate_Miller_