‘Little Rock’ (Sheen Center)

Little Rock, now playing at off-Broadway’s Sheen Center for Thought & Culture, ostensibly chronicles the trials and tribulations of the Little Rock Nine, the first nine black students to integrate, amid relentless resistance, at Arkansas’ Little Rock Central High School in 1957.

The only problem: in Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj world premiere production of his new play, none of the nine come across as actual people; we never get to know them as anything more than caricatures, drowning in derivative — and thus ineffectively familiar — stuffy period aesthetics.

Even worse, Maharaj commits one of the cardinal sins of depicting the mercilessly-subjugated: he defines his characters mostly through their violent persecution instead of delving into the nuanced specifics of their individual identities that, more importantly, allowed them to persevere through such impossible hardships. Of course, such intolerance tragically and forcefully colored their lives, but the whole point of these historical revisitations should be to shed light on the real life, living-and-breathing humans often lost in the folds of history books; here, they feel as thin as the pieces of paper they were clearly written on.

All of this might be a product of the narratively-muddled script, which touches upon enough different events in different locations to feel like a screenplay…except no medium could’ve made sense of the formless connections between these scenes. This confusion is exasperated by the textually and thematically unjustified decision to cast only six actors to play the nine; off-Broadway producers must of course cut costs wherever they can, but it can’t be so nonsensically, and thus jarringly, transparent.

For a relative newcomer to the scene, Maharaj would’ve been wise to pass off his script to a more seasoned director; too much of one voice can stifle what anyone’s trying to say, without the focus often facilitated through meaningful, fruitful collaboration. Writer-directors are a mainstay in Hollywood, where the latter are often given free reign to pervert the contributions of the former. But film’s a director’s medium, whereas theatre belongs to the playwright; on the stage, directors tend to stay much truer to their visions, while also adding deeper, more cohesive layers. The Richard Nelsons and Young Jean Lees of the world are exceptions to this rule, but their stylistic particularities demand more cohesion between the two vocations than most. Given the ardent conventionality of Little Rock‘s dramaturgical aesthetic, a talented helmer may have elevated this dry affair.

At its best, it serves as a reminder that ideas we now take for granted — such as integration — were once as hotly-contested as the hot-button topics of today. At what point will people realize that history never smiles upon those who stand against the spread of equality, in all its variations? To counter the popular, and ignorant, aphorism: perhaps young liberals don’t, in fact, turn into conservatives with age; instead, maybe the world just keeps getting more liberal with time, so that what’s defined as liberal when you’re young becomes more conservative, relative to the next generation, over time.

Little Rock, at least implicitly, frames a concept as obviously-malignant to us as segregation as not being so obvious to its contemporaries; what opposition to movements of today will be considered similarly-abhorrent in future years?

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