“Little Rock, 1957”: A moving look back from Youth Performance Company

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Depicting the true story of the nine African-American students who integrated Central High School in Little Rock, 1957, the new production by Youth Performance Company is compelling and informative without feeling the least bit dry or didactic. The 20-year-old YPC continues to nurture new generations of theater artists. Artistic director Jackie Knight has created a production that packs as much punch as any professional show.

little rock, 1957, a musical written by erin julia mcgonagle (book) and steve hutton (music). presented by youth performance company through march 1 at the howard conn fine arts center, 1900 nicollet ave, minneapolis. for tickets ($12) and information, see youthperformanceco.com. hear an interview with youth performance company members on friday, february 13 at 11 a.m. on kfai.

The play pulls no punches in depicting the hatred that white people—including students—aimed at these nine teenagers. Singing bolstered African-Americans’ spirit of resistance during the civil rights struggle and the late 1950s saw the emergence of an American “youth culture” revolving around popular music. That makes this story a perfect fit for the genre of musical theater. The original 1994 production’s four songs by Steven Joseph Hutton have been supplemented with beautiful new material by the multi-talented Kahlil Queen—rock, gospel, and arrangements of traditional songs. There’s plenty of tension and heart-stopping shocks, enhanced by choreography that ranges from full-cast performances to moving solos.

“The show is sometimes intense, an emotional drama,” says Queen, a YPC alum who is the show’s musical director, composer, and choreographer. “I wanted the music to support that. Music helps the audience connect with that reality.”

The Little Rock Nine faced angry mobs, a hostile school administration, and white students who peppered them with daily harassment, insults, intimidation, and physical violence. In Little Rock, 1957, Shenece Bass plays Elizabeth Eckford, who became the face of the Little Rock Nine when she was featured in an iconic photograph of the students’ first day of school—in the photo, Eckford appears as a lone black student making her way through a crowd of screaming white people. Bass plays Eckford as serious and stoic, fearful and frustrated, and she sings with real pathos. Kinaudrae Lee plays Ernest Green, the only one of the Little Rock Nine to graduate that year. He’s tenaciously sunny and connects with one of the few welcoming white students, the school newspaper’s editor, Jane Einery (Rebecca Hurd). The genuine friendship between Green and Hurd is a hopeful element in what is otherwise a stark portrayal of that year’s events.

Playwright Erin McGuire notes that the story of the Little Rock Nine “shows history is made by ordinary people—in this case, teenagers. Some of the cast members were the same age as the the original students, who were walking through a war zone.”

With a talented ensemble playing the rest of the nine, their white peers, white parents and segregationist Arkansas Governor Faubus, two strong personalities carry the play’s action on their shoulders. Iinan Fears plays Minnijean Brown, one of the nine who is ultimately pushed over the edge of endurance by her most relentless tormentor, a white girl named Darlene (Devon Solorow).

Fears embodies how Minnijean is alternately worn down by racial slurs and attacks, finally standing up for herself with anger. Solorow plays Darlene as a viciously petty character whose malice holds very real danger. The real life Minnijean Brown has continued to fight for social justice and was President Bill Clinton’s Deputy Secretary for Workforce Diversity from 1999 to 2001.

Shelbi Montgomery plays one of the nine trailblazers, Thelma Mothershed, conveying a shy and studious young woman with a remarkable singing voice. She sings “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” as if she’s hanging by a delicate thread to the full-out gospel power of “Woke Up This Morning With My Mind on Freedom.” In her many solos, Montgomery movingly expresses the aching and enduring heart of the play.

It’s been said that President Barack Obama “stands on the shoulders of giants.” Little Rock, 1957 reminds us that some of those giants were teenagers. Actor Ana Esposito says the play leaves her with courage: “The courage it took for these students just to go to school every day. I wish people today had that courage to stand up for what is right.”

Lydia Howell (lhowell@visi.com), a winner of the 2007 Premack Award for Public Interest Journalism, is a Minneapolis independent journalist writing for various newspapers and online journals. She produces and hosts Catalyst: politics & culture on KFAI Radio on Fridays at 11 a.m.

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