INTERVIEW: Writer & Director RAJENDRA RAMOON MAHARAJ of New Off-Broadway Play 'Little Rock&#
Little Rock tells the riveting true story of the Little Rock Nine, the first black students to attend their city’s formerly segregated central high school three years after the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision ruled separating students based on race was unconstitutional. What began as their quest for a better education soon became a national crisis, igniting the passions of a divided country and sparking a historic fight for justice in the Jim Crow south. On the cusp of the Civil Rights movement, a changing world watched as these nine children from Arkansas battled for their rights, armed with only a book and pencil. At once harrowing and hopeful, Little Rock brings urgently to life The Nine’s untold personal stories of challenge and resilience, conjuring memories of America not so long ago. From writer and director Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj, this deeply moving play honors the bravery of these young heroes and asks audiences: Would you have had the courage? Check out my exclusive interview with Rajendra, below!
Are any of the remaining Little Rock Nine members still alive, and were you able to talk to them about their experiences to help you write the play?
Yes, eight of the members are still alive. Sadly, we lost Jefferson a few years ago. The primary source of my play is interviews I conducted with all the members of the Nine. They tell the narrative of what they endured that first year of school at Little Rock Central.
What was the most fascinating thing you learned while writing this play that you didn't know before going in?
One of the things that surprised me was how brave their parents were to allow their kids to go into a firestorm of hatred and ignorance because they knew it was for a greater prize. I also was taken aback at how young they were and that they weren’t Civil Rights activists, just a bunch of ordinary teenagers who just wanted to follow the law and go to school.
Do you feel bringing this play to life now, in today's current climate is very important and brings new meaning to the play?
Absolutely. There are forces in this country, right now, that have made it very clear that they want to turn the clock of history back. We must be, as artists and activists, vigilant in our work to make sure that doesn’t happen.
What lessons can we learn from the play that we can take away and apply to our lives to make the world a better place?
As Americans we all come from the same stock that The Little Rock Nine came from. We each have a calling in our citizenship to make the world better for all. Finally, we stand on the shoulders of giants. And courage, even among children, can change the nation for the better.
Can you give us a sense of how this play is going to be staged and developed? What can we expect?
The piece is a play with music in two acts that follows the Little Rock Nine’s tumultuous first year as they integrated Little Rock Central High School from September of 1957 to May of 1958, and bears witness to the strength, courage, and fortitude that these prolific nine African American teenagers had to change the course of America forever, simply because they wanted to go to school. Told in music and dialogue, their courageous story hurdles from tragedy to triumph.
It is an ensemble-based play that uses multimedia to shape the world, which was Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957. When the audience walks in and experiences the show it will be as though they have been taken back in time to 1957 America from wardrobe to music.
What message do you want people to leave with after seeing this show?
A quote from my literary hero, James Baldwin, sums this question perfectly. He said, ““History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.”