Famed Desegregation Conflict Is Spotlighted in It Happened in Little Rock with Rent's Owens

News   Famed Desegregation Conflict Is Spotlighted in It Happened in Little Rock with Rent's Owens It Happened in Little Rock, a drama depicting the tense days in fall 1957 when nine African-American students were to enter the all-white Central High School — marking the beginning of the end of segregation there — will get its world premiere, opening Sept. 14 in downtown Little Rock, AR.
Vanessa Lemonides and Destan Owens in Little Rock.
Vanessa Lemonides and Destan Owens in Little Rock.

The docudrama-style play written and directed by Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj, who drew on local interviews and research as part of a Rep initiative called The Legacy Project, will appear on Arkansas Repertory Theatre's MainStage. Previews are Sept. 12-13.

It Happened in Little Rock continues through Sept. 30 to coincide with the 50th Anniversary of the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School, where students and administrators take Civil Rights history seriously (one look at the school website proves it). A private preview performance will be held for the Arkansas Chapter of Links, Incorporated on Sept. 11.

According to the resident Equity company, "In 1957, nine courageous black children dared to uphold the law and enter the doors of Little Rock's Central High School. Fifty years later, ten actors convene in Little Rock to reflect on stories past and present of Central High's desegregation and the legacy the events of those years have provided citizens of Little Rock, Arkansas and the United States."

The Legacy Project: It Happened in Little Rock — the show's full title — was commissioned by The Rep. The play, which features music and multimedia, began its journey in May 2004, when Maharaj first visited Little Rock to direct The Rep's MainStage production of Dreamgirls and toured Central High School.

The goal of Rep's Legacy Project was "to create a work based on community narratives about Little Rock's place in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s," according to The Rep. "Nearly 100 interviews of Little Rock residents, members of the Little Rock Nine, and Central High denizens past and present, have informed the docudrama, which is underwritten by Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts." The premiere follows developmental readings in Little Rock and New York City throughout the past year.

The cast consists of nine actors who play multiple roles of diverse ethnicity — from current Central students to the Little Rock Nine, from elected officials to blue-collar workers — and a tenth actor, Destan Owens, who plays the parallel roles of a 1957 reporter from Harlem and a 2006-2007 artist.

Owens appeared in the Broadway productions of Rent, Chicago and Smokey Joe's Café. The company also includes J. Bernard Calloway, Mary-Pat Green, Taifa Harris, Shannon Lamb, Vanessa Lemonides, Arthur W. Marks, Gia McGlone, Nick Petrie and Julian Rebolledo.

Arkansas Repertory Theatre's producing artistic director is Robert Hupp.

Playwright and director Rajendra Maharaj, who directed Dreamgirls and Intimate Apparel at The Rep, also recently directed a production of Dreamgirls starring Jennifer Holliday for Theater of the Stars in Atlanta. He is the artistic director of New York's Rebel Theater and was assistant director on the Tony Award-nominated Broadway revival of A Raisin in the Sun. A participant in the NEA/TCG Group Career Development Program for Directors, Maharaj received AUDELCO Awards for Excellence in Black Theatre for his direction and choreography of the revivals of Damn Yankees and Jamaica. His plays include Mississippi Night and Diss Diss Diss Dat.

Sybil Roberts Williams is the dramaturg for It Happened in Little Rock. Michael Susko is the choreographer and assistant director. Charles Creath is the musical director; musician Steve Hudelson accompanies the cast onstage. Brian Westmoreland is the production stage manager.

The design team includes The Rep's resident scenic designer Mike Nichols, Matthew Webb (lights), Leslie Bernstein (costumes), resident sound designer M. Jason Pruzin and Lynda Kwallek (properties). Matthew Myhrum is the video designer. The production manager is Rafael Colon Castanera.

Post-performance discussions are hosted by JCCA/Just Communities of Central Arkansas (formerly National Conference for Community & Justice) throughout the public run.

Student matinees will be performed for current students at Central High; additional Arkansas schools will attend student matinees at The Rep.

Performances will be Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 PM, Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 PM, and Sunday at 2 PM and 7 PM. Tickets are $20 and $35 with discounts for groups and students. For tickets and information visit www.therep.org or call The Rep box office at (501) 378-0405 or 1-866-6THEREP.

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For more information about the Central High School story, which rocked the nation and roused President Eisenhower to action to protect the students, visit the high school's website at www.lrcentralhigh.org.

The cast of <i>The Legacy Project: It Happened in Little Rock</i>.
The cast of The Legacy Project: It Happened in Little Rock.
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