Art Works Blog

If Buildings Could Talk

We’ve all seen the photographs. The date is September 25, 1957, and nine African-American students are escorted into Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, by troops of the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army by order of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The black-and-white images bristle with racial hatred and fear. This historic event and the changes it heralded for the United States have been commemorated in many ways, none perhaps as ambitiously as a project led by the University of Central Arkansas: If Buildings Could Talk: Mapping the History of Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site. The project recently received an NEA Imagine Your Parks grant to support a multidisciplinary remembrance festival that includes a video projection with original score, a pop-up festival, garden ceremony, lectures, tours, and more.

Gayle Seymour is the associate dean at the University of Central Arkansas and Jennifer Deering works in the university’s Sponsored Programs Office. These two self-described “partners in crime” have set their sights high for an event that will honor history, celebrate the arts and its catalytic role with social justice issues, and spark community conversations about race and place. Three years ago, the university received NEA support to commission an opera about the Little Rock Nine composed by Tania León with libretto by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. that now forms the core of this new venture.

We spoke with Seymour and Deering about the project and what they hope audiences will experience and take away with them.

NEA: In putting together this project, why did you take such a multifaceted and multidisciplinary perspective?

GAYLE SEYMOUR: The opera came first--that's what fueled this project. We've been working on the opera for more than four years and we realized that it may never be performed in Little Rock. So we wanted this project to connect the opera and our state to our park and provide a way for the local community to be engaged. 

Our other thought was that we are well aware that visitors to the National Historic Site are typically middle-aged, middle class, and white, and we wanted to focus on a younger urban audience that might never have visited a national park. We thought that our 3-D projection mapping video might be just the kind of dazzle factor or spectacle to get people to come out. It's our lure.

Then, we had to think about what happens once we get audiences to come. So we developed a number of activities that we hoped would be interesting to a wide range of people, all ages, all backgrounds, and all abilities.

NEA: What do you want audiences to take away from their participation in If Buildings Could Talk?

JENNIFER DEERING: I'm overseeing the pop-up part of the project. An example of our ideas is that we have a person in the neighborhood around Central High who makes wigs for people who are going through chemotherapy. There's a huge market for wigs because women now want to change their hair color every day. So the pop-up could be an opportunity for him to test out a startup. What I want to do is help the neighborhood conceive of what it could be in the future.

Right now, there are a lot of abandoned buildings in the neighborhood around the park, including a small grocery store that’s just sitting there. We've got this park that we can leverage to build a community, build more businesses, and build a vibrant, happening place that is livable and sustainable. 

SEYMOUR: Central High is in a food desert so we hope that the pop-up will have a culinary piece to it. Meanwhile, we've been approached by the GoodFellas Barbershop College and Outreach in Little Rock and they've offered to give free haircuts. The arts are the critical piece in the project. You get people to the site, but then it needs to do more. It needs to contribute to understanding and to communication.

NEA: How will the event enhance peoples' understanding of the story of the Little Rock Nine?

SEYMOUR: This will be the 60th anniversary of that event and it's likely to be the last one in which the eight surviving members of the Nine will be able to participate. One of the things we are planning is a remembrance ceremony in the Little Rock Central High Memorial Garden.

Tania León, our composer of the Little Rock Nine opera will speak about art and social justice. We envision the Central High Alumnae Choir and Bell-Ringers to perform. We want to have a sacred event in addition to cool and fun activities.

NEA: How will the event enhance the experience of the site for those in the local community?

DEERING: I want to use the pop-up event and the festivities around the 60th commemoration to start discussions. Little Rock is so segregated, so we need to start having real hard talks and we've started that. Gayle and I are on this journey with the John Cain Foundation and the New Africa Alliance. They want us to help them present some oral histories about people who were associated with the Civil Rights Movement but who were not the Nine. I hope that we can start a community conversation and keep it going and keep that spirit alive.

The arts are the spark for conversations. You don't have to solve a problem as much as you need to listen to each other. While the conversation may be difficult to start, once started and you feel comfortable with one another, then it becomes easier. You acknowledge that you're different and move on.

SEYMOUR: What's surprising about these partners is their enthusiasm for the Little Rock Nine opera. They are so excited about the potential of this epic story being told in this format that they reached out to us.

NEA: How will the opera fit into the event?

SEYMOUR: After the weekend of the festival, on Monday, which is the actual 60th anniversary of the Little Rock Nine, we will have a lecture with our opera artists, Tania León and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in the university performance hall. We want to have them talk about the historical moment, about using the arts for social change, with the event punctuated by the singing of some of the arias. Also, Tania León will be doing master classes with students at UCA and probably at Central High.

NEA: You noted in your application that “Jazz and hip-hop are integrated art forms in a piece about segregated America.” Can you speak more about that?

DEERING: Music and visual art are oftentimes the only ways that oppressed people find a means to express their humanity and be heard. Jazz and hip-hop are two musical genres that provided that means of expression for African Americans but later became musical forms that represent our country in the world. By incorporating these two forms in the project, I hope we can attract audiences young and old and perhaps expose people of all races and ages to music that they may not be familiar with. 

Also, the two musical genres will complement the opera, so we've got three different genres coming together to talk about issues of social justice. I think that's really important.

NEA: Again, referencing your application, you noted that “Buildings are the sites of memory.” Can you speak more about that?

SEYMOUR: I'm very much aware that sites, buildings, architecture tell us how to think. They're speaking to us all the time. The linking of place and memory goes back to the 19th century with people like Ruskin or Proust. Buildings are like memories you can touch and they trigger memories by giving us our own personal history but also allowing us to become part of collective history. 

The other thing to remember about the Central High story is that it was captured by journalists, immortalized by photographers. It was really the first time that TV had covered an event like this. For older Americans when they come to Central High, we hope that the site prompts them to remember something about themselves and something about America.

DEERING: If I can share an anecdote, I happened to go down to Central High one day to take pictures. While I was there, I saw two people from South Korea who asked if my husband and I could take pictures of them. For them to be so far away from their home and to have identified this as a site that they needed to visit and as a place where they wanted to be pictured, solidified for me the site’s importance worldwide.



I am so proud to call Dr. Seymour a colleague, partner and friend!  The work she does at UCA is phenomenal and this project is just one example of her creativity and boundless energy.  CORE Performance Company is honored to have danced in Conway and all around Arkansas through our collaborations.  Hurrah to Gayle and Jennifer for this recognition from the NEA, it is well deserved.

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