Thirteen years ago, writer and director Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj began an extended journey with Little Rock, his new play with music about a disgraceful time in America’s not-so-distant past. Although Maharaj, an Indo-Afro-Caribbean-American activist, possesses a natural penchant for documentary playwriting—to which his works on the stories of Trayvon Martin and activist Daisy Lee Bates attest—it took a conversation with the late August Wilson to plant the seeds of this Off-Broadway hit, currently running at the Sheen Center through September 8.
“I was very much in my world of directing and choreographing and he told me something that I never forgot,” says Maharaj. “He said, ‘When your ancestors take ahold of you, it’s called Sankofa and they will not allow you not to tell the story. It will have to emerge. It will have to be birthed.’”
Sankofa, or the African-American symbol for the importance of learning and remembering the past, certainly describes Maharaj’s experience regarding the incident at Little Rock Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Though the ultimately triumphant story of nine African-American students who fought segregationists for their right to attend school occurred in 1957, Maharaj couldn’t shake his profound sense of connection to the story.
A large push came in 2004 when he was directing Dreamgirls at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre. “I had a Monday off and, by golly, I went to Central and just had this Sankofa moment where, literally, I started shaking and just felt like I had been there,” Maharaj explains. “My heart started racing.”
For Maharaj, that was one of many signs that compelled him to create Little Rock, his first full-scale work. Maharaj began interviewing the Little Rock Nine and others who lived the story, including then and current members of the White Citizens’ Councils and the Ku Klux Klan.
“I never realized when I started this journey that it would be a 13-year journey that would change every aspect of my life as an artist and an activist,” says Maharaj, who continued to tweak the play until he arrived at the version that exists today: a two-act blend of documentary theatre and African-American musical tradition.
But Maharaj’s foray into documentary theatre, while poignant in its own right, increasingly resonates with American audiences today. Maharaj’s next project, a work synthesized from interviews with detained immigrants and sanctuary workers, will capitalize on the present need for activism in all forms.
“So the struggle definitely continues,” says Maharaj, referencing Wilson. “And so we have a great responsibility and opportunity in the theatre to bring this kind of testimonial theatre and this type of activist theatre that really is rooted in the actual words and events as they lived it.”