Most everyone is familiar with the story of the Little Rock Nine. But few of us are familiar with the individuals outside what history books tell us of their experiences. In the Arkansas Repertory Theatre’s “One Ninth,” which debuted Monday at Wildwood Park for the Performing Arts, we get to know one of the nine, Minnijean Brown, intimately. Written by her daughter, Spirit Trickey, the play uses Brown’s diary entries to provide the audience with a deeply moving account of the 1957 crisis.
The cast does an outstanding job in its portrayal of the spirit of the times, in all its hope and hate. Peter (Jeremy Matthey) and Betty Ann (Melody Taylor), Central High students, embody the disgust some found in the idea of integration and Principal Bryant’s character (Jason Thompson) reminds the audience of the racism of the era.
In sharp contrast were the love and support offered up by Brown’s mother, Mrs. Brown (Nisheedah Devre Golden), and younger sister Phyllis (Morgan Christina Brown).
Crystal C. Mercer’s performance as 15-year-old Brown was terrific. Excited for her first day at a new school, she’s set on finding the perfect outfit for the occasion. Sharing her dreams with best friend Melba Patillo (Helen Michelle Daniel), Brown is innocent and idealistic.
Nine Parkview High School students played group roles. As a mob outside the school, they marched chanting, “Two, four, six, eight, we ain’t gonna integrate!” They also stood by as soldiers sent by the president guarded the Nine’s entry into the school.
Scene changes were creative: Instead of lowering the lights between sets, cast members not in character — set apart by wearing sunglasses — rearranged the stage while the performance continued. Their robotic movements created a subtle chaos that didn’t distract from actors still on center stage. The changes complemented the turmoil of Minnijean’s experience.
“One Ninth” is a well-balanced story that mindfully guides the audience from laughter to tears. Trickey successfully combined truth and fiction to shed new light on an episode in American history and to help the audience connect to the emotional experience of integration.
The play now begins a traveling residency that will take it to North Pulaski High School in Jacksonville Jan. 8 and high schools stretching from Fort Smith to Blytheville through early February. A three-day residency, Feb. 9-11, at Central High closes the play’s run. Visit the rep.org for more information.