Director Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj spoke to us about his play Little Rock and the Little Rock Nine, the first black students to attend their city’s formerly segregated high school, and why their story still matters today.
What would you have done, in times of great adversity and danger? This question is often asked in historical hindsight and after the occurrence of horrifying events. Would you have had the courage to stand up for what you believe is right? “Little Rock,” a play which will make its New York City debut on Wednesday, May 30, asks that same question.
Little Rock tells the true story of The Little Rock Nine, the first black students to attend their city’s formerly segregated 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. 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.
Brooklyn Reader had the opportunity to speak with Little Rock’s writer and director Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj, a Brooklyn-raised and -based Indo-Afro-Caribbean American theatre artist and activist and we learned why the story of The Little Rock Nine may still be relevant today…or maybe even more than ever.
The Brooklyn Reader (BKR): You call your play Little Rock your passion project — why did the story of The Little Rock Nine resonate so strongly with you?
Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj (RRM): As an American, or Caribbean American, the values of education and knowing your history and pride in oneself has always been instilled in me since I was a child. But as an American, as an artist and activist — and I consider myself to be a very well-educated, well-cultured human being — to not know that story, that stumped me. A story that was so vital, that allowed me to sit in a classroom with people of different races and genders, to ride the subway, to go to a theater or a restaurant with people from different cultures and ethnicities. The Little Rock Nine paved the way. I felt that it was a story that everyone needed to know. It became my passion project, to be able to present that work, their story that will stand the test of time, and educate and entertain at the same time.
“There are many elements in our society that are trying to turn back the clock to what they interpret as better days, but who are not really seeing that they weren’t better days for every American.”
BKR: While researching the play you interviewed these students as well as the proponents of segregation who lived through that time. How was that experience?
RRM: The Little Rock Nine are really just what I believe all of us should be, which are amazing human beings in service of something far greater than they could even realize. They lived their lives with such honesty, courage and character. They inspire me every single day.
Some of the segregationists had a change of heart over the years. Perhaps because they simply woke up; or maybe, they changed because some of their family married a person of color, whatever their reason may have been. It was a reminder that we are more alike than different. And then there were those who were still stuck, who were holding on to the belief that the Nine were taking their shine away from them. I can understand their hurt. But I also realized that there’s still so much work to be done in the human family for us to really be able to see each other.
BKR: You said that there is still more work to be done within the fabric of the human family. Why is this story still important today?
RRM: There are many elements in our society that are trying to turn back the clock to what they interpret as better days, but who are not really seeing that they weren’t better days for every American. The Little Rock Nine remind us to stand up for what is right. It is shocking to see the brutality that these American children went through. Still, they did it with such grace and continued to go on to become productive citizens, who gave back to society and weren’t bitter. It is a testament to the American dream and the power of the human spirit. It is like what’s happening in Florida with students standing up against guns, or here in New York where kids are standing up and saying no to charter schools that segregate. That’s the power of children, that they claim their voice in our society and that they can gently shake the world to be a better place. And I think, right now in our country with the issue of DACA and with people trying to put up literally walls to separate us because of skin color, this story is so necessary and so vital in the national conversation.
“President Obama, his symbolism –much like the symbolism of the Little Rock Nine — was so inspirational, for many in our society it also became a moment of fear.”
BKR: What do you think inspired the Little Rock Nine to keep their faith and to withstand the great adversity and danger they faced?
RRM: It came down to three things: their faith in God, their belief in education and most importantly their parents, who are the unsung heroes of the movement. Parents, who were able to support and encourage their children who were going into the battlefield fire every day. The Little Rock Nine knew that none of the segregationists who were spitting on them, throwing acid in their face or calling them all these terrible things, none of that had to do with them because these people didn’t know. If they had really believed that it was about them, that the governor, the entire state of Arkansas, were against them, then they really couldn’t have moved forward. But because they had such faith in God, they had a faith in education and they had a great family foundation, they knew that it wasn’t about them. The way people treated them was more of a reflection of themselves.
BKR: For Brooklynites and New Yorkers, who may live in the so-called urban bubble and are surrounded by diversity, what can they take from the play?
RRM: First, it’s an American story. We are able to live in this liberal, beautiful, inclusive bubble because of people like the Little Rock Nine on whose shoulders we stand. Second, while President Obama, his symbolism –much like the symbolism of the Little Rock Nine — was so inspirational, for many in our society it also became a moment of fear. There is a certain group of people in our society who are afraid that their power is going to be removed because the idea of Obama, Michelle, Malia and Sasha could exist with such grace and was done in beauty and unapologetic blackness.
And that’s what happened with the Little Rock Nine. These were good looking, all-American kids who just wanted to go to school; people tried to vilify and stop them. But because of the desire of a better America, much like we live in Brooklyn, they didn’t turn around.
Still, we have to be vigilant right now, especially with this current person who occupies the White House. We have to be even more vigilant in our conversations, the way live our lives, the art we choose as artists, writers and activists to share with the world. We need to push the penny forward and to stop what has become, you know, the beast that has gotten scratched during the eight years of President Obama.
It is not just an African-American story, it’s an American story that is part of our history. And it’s a story that strikes the chord of what’s happening right now in the world. In the play, you’ll see echoes of Trayvon Martin, the Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movement. You’ll see people who are trying to stand up and claim their part of the American dream. That is universal. If we do not know our history, we’re doomed to repeat it and that’s happening every day.