In writing the unanimous 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that education is “a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values.”
Last week at his namesake Warren High School on the far West Side of San Antonio, students were awakened to the story of the Little Rock Nine, teenage students just like them who in 1957 were among the first Black students to enroll in formerly segregated schools after the landmark court case mandated equality in public education for all.
Choreographer Leah Glenn and visual artist Steve Prince visited the high school May 19 in anticipation of Nine, the multimedia performance of the Leah Glenn Dance Theatre at the Carver Community Cultural Center May 28.
Through a schoolwide talk followed by dance and drawing workshops, they lent context and creativity to the story of the nine Black students who became symbols in the United States’ long march toward racial justice.
With Nine, Glenn and Prince “have taken that history and created something artistic and beautiful and moving,” said Rosalyn Jones, a teacher and originator of the African American studies program at Warren.
Jones teamed with Cassandra Parker-Nowicki, executive director of the Carver Center, to bring Glenn and Prince to the school as part of a two-week San Antonio residency that included an appearance at In the Eye of the Beholder art gallery on May 20 and Chris Park at Ruby City the following day for a performance excerpt.
The initial seed for Nine was planted in 2018, as Prince’s first Carver Center residency project, Communal Portal, wrapped up. Based on the success of that project, Parker-Nowicki commissioned Prince and Glenn to develop Youngest of Nine, a solo dance honoring Carlotta Walls, the youngest of the Little Rock Nine, into a full-length ensemble piece.
Glenn had seen Prince’s large-scale linocut print 9 Little Indians, 1999, and asked him to develop the print commemorating the first instance of school desegregation in Alabama into backdrops and costumes for Nine.
Both artists have said they want to appeal to the emotional side of the story and the audience, and enlisted poet Hermine Pinson to create verse to give voice to figures represented in the piece and composer Stephen Hayes of Philander Smith College to create music incorporating ragtime, blues, jazz and spirituals.
Glenn said one goal is to see the teenage racial justice pioneers not only as heroic historical figures, or what Pinson, in a 2021 talk about the project, called “earthly avatars for a people rising,” but as young and vulnerable individuals standing strong against hatred and ignorance.
While researching historical photos and film footage, Glenn said she became interested in what wasn’t being shown, including the regular harassment the students were subjected to in school hallways and classrooms, and what she called “the emotional content of the everyday.”
Dancer LaWanda Raines called the piece “visceral,” in part because Pinson incorporated voices on all sides of the issue of desegregation, including those that opposed Black students being allowed into Little Rock Central High School. But Raines said Nine ultimately fosters understanding of how segregation and its aftermath have played out over the past 65 years.
Jones said students in her African American studies class at Warren definitely understand the concept of segregation and its present-day implications, including the recent racially-motivated mass murder in Buffalo.
“There’s always questions about why. ‘Why is this going on?’” Jones said. “And you have to look back in history, and it’s not surprising. But it just gives you a sense of what happened in the past, and how it’s continuing to happen.”
A project such as Nine, she said, fosters understanding of history, and asks “what we can do to change that?”
Tickets for the 8 p.m. performance of Nine on May 28 are $29, available through Ticketmaster.