CFAC receives NEA grant for Little Rock Nine opera project




April 23, 2014

Contact: Dr. Gayle Seymour, (501) 450-3295,



Grant to support opera The Little Rock Nine

CONWAY — The National Endowment for the Arts announced recently that the University of Central Arkansas’s College of Fine Arts and Communication is one of 886 nonprofit organizations nationwide to receive an NEA Art Works grant.

This is the first time in UCA’s history for the school to receive the highly prestigious Art Works grant.

CFAC is recommended for a $15,000 award to support the commission of The Little Rock Nine, an opera recounting the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School by nine black students, to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the September 1957 events that marked one of the pivotal moments in the history of Arkansas and the nation.

Other contributors to the project include the Virginia Bernthal Toulmin Foundation with a $50,000 grant and the Darragh Foundation with a grant of $25,000.

CFAC is collaborating with Cuban-born composer and conductor Tania León and American literary critic and scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who will write the libretto. León is known for her contemporary music, including ballets, string quartets, and the opera Scourge of Hyacinths, based on a play by Wole Soyinka. Gates, American literary critic and scholar, is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University and one of the world’s most prominent scholars on African-American history.

“The NEA is pleased to announce that the University of Central Arkansas College of Fine Arts and Communication is recommended for an NEA Art Works grant,” NEA Acting Chairman Joan Shigekawa said. “These NEA-supported projects will not only have a positive impact on local economies but will also provide opportunities for people of all ages to participate in the arts, help our communities to become more vibrant and support our nation’s artists as they contribute to our cultural landscape.”

Dr. Gayle Seymour, associate dean of UCA’s College of Fine Arts and Communication, said the grant would help the college meet its mission of presenting programming that educates, deepens and diversifies audiences.

“The college is committed to nurturing creativity and making great art accessible to a wide audience,” she said. “We are delighted our opera project, which tackles one of the most important Civil Rights events in US history and which happened right here in Arkansas, has been recognized by such a prestigious agency as the National Endowment for the Arts.”

The brainchild of Dr. Rollin Potter, former dean of UCA’s College of Fine Arts and Communication, The Little Rock Nine will tell the story of the nine African-American students who, under the protection of the United States Army’s 101st Airborne Division, entered Little Rock’s Central High School, risking their lives to ensure future generations’ equal access to education.

Seymour and Dr. Donna Lampkin Stephens, UCA assistant professor of journalism, have worked with Potter for nearly two years on the project, which they hope will invite younger generations into the world of opera through the drama and innovation that León and Gates will bring to the work.

As Gates has expressed, “It would be one of the honors of our lives to tell this story as it has never been told: as a modern opera as searing and inspiring as any of the dramas of the ancient world, but with more immediacy.”

The story of the Little Rock Nine transfixed the nation in September 1957 as nine ordinary yet courageous African-American students entered the previously all-white Central High School under federal troop escort to obtain an equal education. With the help of television news, then in its infancy, and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters and photographers, the events commanded worldwide attention as Little Rock and the Nine came to symbolize the federal government’s commitment to eliminating separate systems of education for blacks and whites.

Set within the climate of fear that persisted in the South, the story contains classic opera heroes and villains, including the nine students and their families, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, civil rights pioneer Daisy L. Bates and Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus, who called out the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the Nine from entering the school.

As Gates tells the story, “At the center of the crisis were nine black children seeking the promise of equal education. Behind them was a federal court order. In their way, literally, was their state’s white governor, determined to hold onto the old ways, even at the point of arms. As the country watched the standoff unfold, the children walked up the schoolhouse steps with bricks and bats bearing down. Their only hope: the President and a military, which, at his command, had helped liberate Europe after D-Day. In an America torn between its capacity for cruelty and dreams, what would win out: betrayal or courage, rage or principle, hate or the dignity of rising by learning? The answer would revolutionize a nation.”

Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Nine who dared to enter the all-white school, remembered Sept. 4, 1957, the day she withstood segregationist intimidation: “I tried to see a friendly face somewhere in the mob — someone who maybe would help. I looked into the face of an old woman and it seemed a kind face, but when I looked at her again, she spat on me.”

Art Works grants support the creation of art that meets the highest standards of excellence, public engagement with diverse and excellent art, lifelong learning in the arts, and enhancement of the livability of communities through the arts.  The NEA received 1,515 eligible applications under the Art Works category, requesting more than $76 million in funding. Of those applications, 886 are recommended for grants for a total of $25.8 million.

For a complete listing of projects recommended for Art Works grant support, visit the NEA website at

For more information about The Little Rock Nine, contact Seymour at (501) 450-3295 or

The UCA College of Fine Arts and Communication includes the Departments of Art, Communication, Mass Communication and Theatre, Music and Writing. The college’s primary mission is the preparation of the next generation of artists, educators and communicators. For more information about CFAC, visit or call (501) 450-3293.