Rajendra Maharaj has described his new Rep play, “The Legacy Project: It Happened in Little Rock,” as a patchwork of voices that examines the evolution of race over the past 50 years. The patchwork doesn't hold together, however.
His method was to collect a range of opinions on the subject and — in connection with an imaginative recreation of the Central High Crisis — present them as theater.
The result, however, is a stage so congested with one-line characters that it's difficult to figure out what Maharaj's point is, or if he's even trying to make a point at all. The viewer is left with the feeling that Maharaj has taken his extensive research — three years of it, including more than 80 interviews — and simply tossed it on to the page. There is no center.
The play assumes a ponderous air from the beginning, as a character known as “the Artist” (Destan Owens) opines about race as he visits the grave of “the Reporter” (Owens again). When he's done with his spiel, the cast of 10 gets together for a bizarre song and dance number that predicts the cacophony of the next 90 minutes.
The Reporter, who we see in the flesh in a flashback to 1957, is based on an actual journalist who covered the Central High crisis. The Artist is likewise based in reality: He is Maharaj himself. The character encompasses the play's worst aspects: verbosity, needless self-reference (at one point the character mentions the fact that's he's putting on a play) and the use of weak characters as a mouthpiece for disjointed ideas.
The present-day characters, speaking verbatim from interviews Maharaj conducted, do nothing more than introduce themselves and give a brief speech before shuffling off. While the 1957 scenes read more like drama — that is, they employ character and setting — these parts suffer from the same flaw. As the Reporter conducts interviews in the days before the integration attempt, the lifespan of the characters he questions is limited to the time it takes them to give a quote for his story.
The play has its powerful moments, and it's at its most gripping when it portrays historical events rather than the opinions others have about them. The recreation of the mob that confronted Elizabeth Eckford (Shannon Lamb) is the play's strongest scene. While her stoicism is what stands out in the photos from that day, the dramatization of the event plumbs the fear behind her dark glasses.
At points, the play's time-shifting technique is used effectively. When a present-day interviewee recalls her ancestor's run-in with the Klan, the scene cuts to portray the memory she describes. More often, though, there is no such link to connect the past to the present. Much of the dialogue lacks the context of scene and character that would give it weight.
The result is more a commemoration of the past than a statement on race. On the topic of race today, the play offers plenty of words, but few of them leave an impression.