NEA Arts Magazine

Conversations and Catharsis

Arkansas Repertory Theatre's The Legacy Project

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Mary-Pat Green and Gia McGlone

Hate mail written in the late 1950s regarding desegregation of Little Rock's Central High School is projected over actresses Mary-Pat Green and Gia McGlone in Arkansas Repertory Theatre's production of The Legacy Project: It Happened in Little Rock. Photo by Benjamin Krain.

Good things happen when NEA theater panels convene. Not only are highly artistic projects rewarded with funding, highly artistic partnerships are formed.

Such was the case in 2002, when Bob Hupp, artistic director of Arkansas Repertory Theatre (ART), and Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj, a young African-American playwright and director, found themselves sitting at the same panelists' table. Between sessions, they chatted and brainstormed potential projects. Two years later, Maharaj was in Little Rock directing Dreamgirls. He felt a strong connection with the community and began to talk about a possible collaboration with greater significance: a new theatrical work commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Little Rock Nine's resolve to desegregate Central High School.

The Legacy Project: It Happened in Little Rock premiered last fall to national acclaim. ART brought the project to the stage with help from an NEA grant. Six of the nine former students attended the show on September 25, the day of the anniversary, and sang with the cast at the curtain call. Two more of the former classmates eventually came to the theater, and all eight lavished nothing but praise on the play. And while their endorsement meant much to Hupp, he was more concerned about how members of the Little Rock community would react to seeing history reenacted live.

After each performance, Just Communities of Central Arkansas, a social advocacy consortium, encouraged people to remain in the theater and discuss what they'd seen onstage. Audiences stayed for up to 90 minutes, venting, remembering, and reconciling.

"We really were interested in making a theater piece where the ideas -- the issues that had been just below the surface -- were addressed in raw and open ways," Hupp said. "The play was the catalyst for these discussions."

In developing the show, Maharaj took his cues from the creators of The Laramie Project, the 2000 play about a small Wyoming town where tensions mounted after a gay college student was brutally murdered. Just as Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project based their play on interviews with Laramie residents, Maharaj spoke with nearly 100 present and former members of the Little Rock community. From those transcripts and archival media accounts, he compiled an account of September 1957 that was historically accurate, dramatically compelling, and profoundly moving.

The Legacy Project may never be staged with quite the same poignancy as the premiere, but Hupp is confident that the show will have a life of its own at theaters across the country.

"The issues of 1957 are still very much a part of this community," Hupp said. "We knew we were taking a risk, but the play was so well received, and so thoughtfully responded to, it made me proud to be a member of this community."