“Nine Who Dared: Courage in Little Rock” closed recently at Kansas City’s Coterie Theatre in Crown Center with sold out performances that challenge the minds of young patrons and by bringing them inside the play with an interactive Q&A session within the play.
Depend on Jeff Church, producing artistic director, to research, find, and deliver the highest quality of young adult literature designed to expand the thoughts of his young audiences. His selections range from new interactive pieces, to classic theater pieces, to newly adapted pieces for small stages and younger patrons. The most recent production shined a light on desegregation in Little Rock, three years after the landmark Supreme Court decision on, “Brown versus the Topeka Board of Education,” of 1954.
The decision, one of the most important of the march from slavery to freedom and equality, remains current and important for many reasons, but specifically to Kansas City audiences because Topeka lies about an hour’s drive from Kansas City, and the ruling changed education nationwide. Even with the decision, states fought and reluctantly integrated schools.
“Nine Who Dared: Courage in Little Rock” focuses on the nine brave students who suffered after the ruling as they help break ground for other Black students to follow. Their story needs to be told, time and time again. The Coterie’s production shows a piece of the torment, pain, bullying, and anger that is aimed at the nine high school students.
“Set in 1957, … three years since the Supreme Court ended the racial segregation of public schools with their historic Brown vs. Board of Education ruling,” a Coterie press release stated. “Even though African American students were now legally allowed to enroll in traditionally white schools, they still faced daily harassment. In fact, Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, was only then admitting its first nine African American students. Deemed the ‘Little Rock Nine,’ these high schoolers suddenly found themselves on the front line of a segregation battle that required tenacity and extraordinary strength of character. Their fight to attend Central High, in the midst of a community uprising, received national attention and became a defining moment in the Civil Rights Movement.”
One of the amazing aspects of The Coterie’s production is the study and preparation of the individual actors who studied their characters and displayed facts and knowledge to field random questions from the audience participants. The audience questions toward the end of the production bring the patrons into the production in a unique way. Cast members circulate in the audience and select audience members who have questions to specific characters. The cast member who is questioned responds with his or her knowledge about the question. This shows the depth of preparation of the cast to give honest answers to the audience.
“Written and originally produced by Theatre Espresso in Boston, ‘The Nine Who Dared’ is similar in style and structure to ‘And Justice for Some: The Freedom Trials of Anthony Burns,’ which the company also created and The Coterie co-produced with UMKC Theatre last season.
“Both pieces present a true life story with multiple points-of-view, and each encourages its young audience to interact with historical characters and think through the ethical and philosophical questions raised in the story,” explains director, Jeff Church. “Over 7,000 youth and family audiences will see this interactive production depicting integration efforts, with both pain and triumph. The play asks them to participate in the performance and during the ‘town hall’ so the experience becomes a truly thought-provoking – and memorable – look at history.”
In this piece, the cast mostly undertakes multiple roles. Donovan Woods, Dianne Yvette, Leah Swank-Miller, and Sherri Roulette-Mosley mostly portray one character. And, they give depth and strength to that character. Most of the characters are positive characters and sympathetic to the theme of the story. All of the cast give solid performances. Ariel Talacko stands out because her characters are the most unsympathetic of the cast. She is the villain, the voice of opposition. She delivers a great character that is easy to dislike. And, she does it with style.
Sherri Roulette- Mosley always delivers a strong character and her clash in the opening scene with the vice principal of the school sets up the frame for the flashback. Mosley is at her best when sparring with the vice principal, played by Leah Swank-Miller. Swank-Miller has the most complex character of the play as the vice principal that aids the nine students but must also keep order and the white community from at bay. She gives a multi-layered character with depth and a range of emotions.
Another stand-out performance is that of Joseph Fournier who gives a firm voice to Chief Justice Early Warren and President Dwight D. Eisenhower. His stint as Ike demonstrates the dominance of a 5-Star general and sitting president when telling then governor Faubus exactly what he both expects and demands of him in regards to the school situation.
All of the cast performed with expertise and skill. They worked as an ensemble and changed characters many times. With so many character changes, it’s difficult for them to stand out, but it certainly allowed them to shine and display their ability to shift and construct several characters.
“Nine Who Dared” opened The Coterie’s 2016 season, proving to be a huge success. Many performances were sellouts. What a joy to know that The Coterie, again, presents theater for younger audiences that also entertains and challenges adults as well. Bravo! to The Coterie for continuing their illumination and entertainment for all.
The Nine Who Dared: Courage in Little Rock featured dozens of characters played by ten
actors, the Coterie said. The cast included: Ron Lackey, Sherri Roulette-Mosley, Leah Swank-Miller, Dianne Yvette, Donovan Woods, Ariel Talacko, Thomas Waller, Joseph Fournier, Michael DeCoursey, and Rasheedat “Ras” Badejo. The artistic and production company includes Jeff Church (director), William J. Christie (production stage manager), Tristan James (set designer), Jarrett Bertoncin (light designer), Georgianna Londré Buchanan (costume designer), David Kiehl (sound designer), Scott Hobart (technical director), and Danielle Walsh (production assistant).