“Little Rock”, a Play and discussion – Ezra Roberts
For my Black History in San Diego project I choose to attend a screening of “Little Rock” at the Common Ground Theater. The play, directed by Yolanda Marie Franklin, focused on the perspectives and experiences of the Little Rock Nine, the nine students chosen with the support of the National Association of Colored People (NAACP) to integrate a public school in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957. This would follow the 1954 case, Brown v. Board of Education.. The play revolves around various themes, but mainly touches on black nationalism and the experiences of black people in America at that time. The study of this play will allow us to not just better understand the events that took place, but additionally the mentalities of the people involved, giving us an opportunity to engage the material at a personal level as black people, and a new perspective on desegregation with Black Nationalism.
I found the sample of the show I saw to be quite entertaining, the acting was good and the story was clear and well written. To me the most important part of a play is how the acting works with the writing and the props, and I felt that “Little Rock”did a great job of that, through the use of powerful imagery and sets, like shadowy figures to depict large racist crowd, that really work to display the fear that the nine students felt and the intimidation and racism they faced on a daily basis. It portrayed the attitude and personality of the people of the time and the nine themselves. Despite the small scale of the production, the enthusiasm and passion for the subject and the experience of the director was evident from the beginning and made the performance very enjoyable and engaging.
Being occupied by the play at such an intimate level helped me to better understand how it related to our course and better understand African-American history as a whole by understanding the experiences of the people we read about. As I mentioned before, the set and costume design was one of the main features in the play and really helped to illustrate the greater points of the play. One of my favorite scenes was when one of the nine students was harassed over the phone by the Ku Klux Klan. This scene featured a man in full Klan costume and a woman standing alone in spotlights on stage, facing the audience and talking to each other. I thought this was a great way to not only portray the interaction but also to show the loneliness and fear that was felt by the woman on the other side. In addition to aggressive and oppressive imagery, the play also made use of aggressive language, never holding back on use of the n-word. After the first utterance, the word was no longer shocking to me in the play, and I feel this was the idea behind it, to desensitize the audience to the word and create this atmosphere of oppression and fear within the theater. In this way the audience was able to be present in the 1960s. Watching the play and watching scenes like the one described above unfold really opened my eyes to the reality of the black experience in America at the time. As told in her book about the whole ordeal, “A Mighty Long Walk”, Carolatta Walls LaNier, talks explicitly about what it was like to be one of nine students who integrated Little Rock Central High School. Additionally she talks extensively about just the experience of being black in America, to be yelled at and spit on just because of the color of your skin. Not only were the nine students faced with open hostility from most whites but from the state government itself, spearheaded by the Governor of Arkansas and the national guard. Watching this experience on stage and reading about it in “A Mighty Long Walk” made it more real for me, allowed me to place myself in the shoes of those students and better understand the black experience in America at that time, not as a person but as a second class citizen.
Additionally I find that Little Rock gave me a better perspective on how nuanced and complicated desegregation really was. This was made especially clear to me following our lessons on Black Nationalism and the comments from the audience members. One gentleman in the audience raised questions about whether it was really integration or assimilation, as someone who lived through that era he explained how many in the community felt that integrated schools would lead to a loss of identity. This was a view held by many Civil Rights activists, most prominently Malcom X. In our reading of Malcom’s famous “Ballot or the Bullet” speech held April 3rd, 1964. We analyzed how Malcom called for, not integration, but for the black man to take control and ownership of his own community. This idea is directly influenced by black nationalism – a theme which is explored by the play, through the character of Mr. Jones. It was only later, after seeing the play, when we began to talk about black nationalism, that I was able to relate to the ideas of Mr. Jones and his pessimism towards integration. Mr. Jones is a local of the community, he tends the community garden and has an established relationship with one of the nine students, Ernest Green. When we are first introduced Ernest is telling Mr. Jones how excited he is to integrate the school, but Mr. Jones is more prehensive as to what integration could really mean. As Our readings and lessons on Black Nationalism also helped me to better understand the thinking of the audience member and his question as to whether it was really integration or assimilation.Through the character of Mr. Jones the play is able to explore diverse conceptions and perceptions of integration on the part of the Black community. While it had potential to lend to peace and prosperity, it could also lead to a loss of control over their cultures and communities.
Through watching“Little Rock” at the Common Ground Theater, I was able to connect directly to what was currently going on in class, the Civil rights movement and black nationalism as well as really learn about the black experience and how those people might have felt and their thoughts on integration. Because of this I am better able to not just relate to the course material, but study it as well, gaining a keen insight into the Civil Rights Movement and the effect it had on black lives at the time. Additionally I am able to gain a better understanding of the division within the black community itself over integration, through the plays use and examination of black nationalism, and in turn apply that back to our course through my observation of how black nationalism could manifest itself in the lives of the average balc citizen, like opposing integration because you believe it will damage the black community.
LaNiear, Carolatta, “A Mighty Long Walk”, August 25th, 2009
X, Malcom, “The Ballot or the Bullet”, April 12th, 1964