The Coterie Theatre, in its nearly 40-year history, has often challenged audiences with difficult subjects, such as bullying or the Salem witch trials. The theater continues the tradition with its current production, The Nine Who Dared: Courage in Little Rock.
The play tackles a pivotal time in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950 and 60s: the struggle for school integration. Set in 1957, in Little Rock, Arkansas, The Nine Who Dared explores the court ruling, the protests, and the integration of Central High School, when nine African-American teenagers — dubbed the Little Rock Nine — enrolled in an all-white school.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, declared segregated schools unconstitutional. But, three years later, at Central High School in 1957, black students were still not welcome. There were mobs, troops were called in, and students experienced verbal and emotional abuse.
On a recent weekday morning, busloads of middle and high school students filed into the Coterie Theatre in Crown Center for a matinee. The diverse group of kids sat in brightly colored chairs that circled the stage with an image of a faded Confederate flag.
In one scene, student Melba Patillo (played by Dianne Yvette) stood in a starched pink dress next to Daisy Bates (played by Sherri Roulette-Mosley), of the Arkansas NAACP, who offered advice before the students entered the school.
"Don't look so nervous, child," said Bates. "Head held high," replied Patillo. "Right, let's go," said Bates to Patillo. "Two, four, six, eight, we don't want to integrate!," chanted the protestors.
And later: "On my way to class," said Patillo,"a girl slapped me, and spit in my face. I kept walking."
The play, written by Wendy Lement, Derek Nelson, and Cliff Odle, is peppered with news reports, and historical figures, as it details a semester of struggle.
There’s a heated exchange between President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus. And one black student, Minnijean Brown, decides she’s had enough.
Audience members were then invited to participate in a town hall — to ask questions and give advice to the cast, as they stayed in character.
This interactive approach is one the Coterie has used before, in productions such as last season’s Justice for Some: The Freedom Trials of Anthony Burns, and Afflicted: Daughters of Salem in 2014.
Donovan Woods, who plays one of the 'Little Rock Nine' students, said, as an actor, it can be challenging to go from a script to off-script, blending research with improvisation.
"Because you're in the show as the character, and then we do the follow-up questions in character," Woods said, "and after the follow-up questions are the post-questions, still knowing who the character is."
To help the cast members understand their characters, director Jeff Church suggested they read Melba Patillo Beals's memoir, Warriors Don't Cry. Actor Dianne Evette, who played Patillo, said it helped shape her approach.
"I think one of the things, when you’re playing a real person, (it helps) to understand not just what happened to them, but the time and the place," said Evette, "like what was the era like, what was the music like, what were average teenagers doing, how did they respond to each other and to adults."
Two 7th graders from Arrowhead Middle School in Kansas City, Kansas, shared their reactions after the performance:
"One of the main things that I learned is that it was a hard time back then," said Carvin Cooper, "and I’m kind of lucky that I didn’t have to go through that."
"It was a bad time for them," said Jose Delgado,"(but) I learned that they stand up, they kept their heads up without saying bad words."
In Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957, it was the young people who were on the front lines of the integration battle. Both Evette and Woods said courage is integral to the story, and a message the audience can take with them.
"We call it ‘Courage in Little Rock,’ and it’s not just the courage of those students, but those people who were willing to stand there, and say, 'You know, I might be white, but I’m not OK with what’s happening here either,'" said Evette.
"You can have this same kind of courage that the 'Little Rock Nine' have," added Woods. "Everybody in this theater has the same kind of courage, you just have to be willing to stand up for what you believe in."
The Coterie Theatre presents 'The Nine Who Dared,' through Oct. 21, on the first level of Crown Center shops, 2450 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Missouri. 816-474-6552.
Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter, @lauraspencer.