If you had access to see what was really going on in the New York City public schools system, what would you do with that information? I mean the type of access that let you see what our Black and Hispanic students are like up close in the classroom, access to work in the room with teachers and the opportunity to speak with people who have been there and seen it all for so long-the janitors, lunch ladies and crossing guards. Then try having this exposure in over 30 New York City schools.
This is the access Nilaja Sun had as a teaching artist in the public schools system, something she did for several years. She has managed to pen and perform all that she experienced in her one-woman show, “No Child,” now playing at the Barrow Street Theatre.
Sun took the time to speak with the AmNews about how she became a teaching artist and how her play came to be. Sun had been doing odd job like bartending, waiting tables and performing as a clown at children’s parties. “I felt there was something missing,” she said.
“I wanted to serve humanity in some way. Artist friends of mine talked about being teaching artists. I performed with the National Shakespeare Company’s teaching artists program and we went into different schools all across the city and performed 1-hour versions of ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ I saw how things were around the schools. It was shocking, the attitude and discipline problems. It made me want to wait tables again. Then I found that being a teaching artist was something I was drawn to. Since 1998, I’ve been a teaching artist,” Sun recalled.
Regarding the evolution of the play, Sun said, “I got a grant from Epic Theatre Ensemble, a group I teach with. They asked me if I wanted to do a piece on education and I said yes. I wanted to create a funny piece to really show the sense of humor of our kids, but I wanted to also make it very truthful. The piece was for three or four people and the director said, ‘Why not make it a one-woman show?’ I wanted it to be a piece about how beautiful our kids are in the face of so much.”
The play is aimed at many kinds of people, Sun said. “I wrote the show for when it’s three o’clock and all the teens descend the subway and the adults move away and move to another car. There’s a fear that people have when they see groups of teenagers, because you don’t think of them as individuals. After the show they will see, this kid is like a Shawnrequa.
“Then I thought teachers would like it,” she continued. “You’re a teacher and you feel like no one is listening to you or understands what you are going through. You can come to the show and laugh and cry. It’s a bit of a breather for teachers to feel good about the work they are doing.”
Sun hopes audiences will sympathize with what students endure in school, starting as they come in the entrance and pass through the metal detector.
“I’m not saying anything about needing metal detectors. I’m saying, if people imagined a world where the first 20 minutes of walking into a school, you go through what you go through walking into an airport…You have the feeling that you are wrong, you’re a criminal, you’ve done something wrong, that’s a feeling that bleeds through the whole day for the kids.
The idea is not just about metal detectors. In the play, we are rehearsing a show about convicts in Australia-the students related to this because they feel like criminals when they haven’t done anything,” Sun stated.
The play’s narrator is the school janitor. He is a character who has been in the school for years and can give you all the information about the staff and students. Sun said, “This character is dedicated to all the janitors, lunch ladies and crossing guards who have been in the school year in and out and can tell you the history of the school. They never give up. When the janitor passes away, his soul is still in the building, so this is a love letter to those who have never quit on our kids.”
There are a few thoughts Sun wants audiences to come away with. “Number one, I want them to see how whole our teenage Americans are-human beings with pains, joys and triumphs, sadness and tears, though they are still in a way children. I hope that you come away falling in love with one of them,” Sun said.
Why come to see “No Child”? “Come if you want to see a raw, emotional piece where the performer is giving 100 million percent…Come on down,” Sun invited.