Tough New York Schools Drama for Melbourne Festival
It’s hardly ironic that Nilaja's surname is Sun; she exudes warmth and sunshine – even over the telephone from New York City on a Friday night, as Tammy Shmerling discovered when they spoke.
Nilaja Sun is the writer and performer in the one-woman production, “No Child…”, premiering at the Arts Centre from 9-14 October as part of the 2012 Melbourne Festival. The one-woman tour de force depicts the US public education system as a battleground.
Sun wrote the show after eight years of teaching in some of New York’s toughest schools. The overarching story is semi-biographical; about a newly employed drama teacher, struggling to teach students who don’t expect much more than to drop out, get pregnant or go to jail. Sun captures the schooling community, playing teachers, parents, security guards, students and administrators.
The title is a take on the American Education standard, that no child shall be left behind. Asked whether this is realistic, Sun replies, “Why not have the best expectation for education?”
Sun, however, recognises the paradox in this. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, the federal act signed into law in 2002, public schools must test proficient in mathematics and English/language arts by 2014 or face serious consequences, such as a loss of government funding. “Schools are so worried about taking the test, they teach to the test. Arts is the first to go.”
This is disastrous to a teaching artist, as Sun refers to herself. She coaches Freshmen, Sophomores and Juniors in drama, playwriting and Theatre Studies.
Sun originally wanted to be an obstetrician/mid wife, bringing life into the world. In recalling how she became a teacher, Sun exclaims, “There are other ways of bringing life into the world!”
Sun was hooked from the beginning. “It was so painful getting them into a circle, getting them to say their name with pride. I thought to myself, ‘If there’s one thing I can teach them, it’s being proud to say their name’”.
The students were plagued by poverty, hunger, abuse, neglect and a lack of belief from adults. Some of them had already lived two or three lives. “They would look at me and be like, ‘girlfriend…’. They’d lost their inner child. They had on an ‘I don’t care look’, but also a ‘don’t hurt me look’. I thought to myself, ‘What teaching tools, what instruments, can I use?”.
It is these students, these opportunities for change and growth, that convince Sun she is in the right profession. “[Teaching] is one of the best jobs in the world… You can close your eyes at the end of the day and say, ‘Today I did something…’”.
She admits, however, that it can be hard to shut off at the end of the day; that one can feel burdened. She sought guidance from colleagues, and learned to instil more discipline into her classroom. For example, in slapping: “Miss Sun will take none of that!” This is because in a drama class, every student must feel safe.
Social media allows Sun to re-connect with students. “On Facebook I see sexy pics of them. I know they’re young adults now, they’re not 15… But…” Living in New York City, Sun also sees former students on the subway a lot.
Recently in a college workshop Sun came across a young boy who asked, “Do you remember me? It’s Arok”. Three days later she admitted to him that she had no recollection. “I was in prison, the youngest one there, and I saw your play in a video. I was inspired to get out and become an actor.”
These moments provide Sun with the intrinsic motivation to continue teaching and performing. She remains deeply passionate about education and educators. “I don’t know why the general population doesn’t see the light around teachers. The knowing, warmth, understanding in their eyes. Their soul print is immeasurable. They are luminous human beings. Everyone can remember one teacher that changed the outcome of their life.”
With this passion and commitment, it’s no wonder “No Child…” retains an optimistic outlook. “You won’t see adults talking about education; you see the hearts of the kids. There’s a lot of humour”.
Characters are based on real people, but amalgamations. The setting, too, is a combination of schools that Sun has taught at.
The play is so close to Sun’s heart that she continues to marvel at its success. In developing it in 2007, The New York State Council of the Arts and the Epic Theatre Ensemble offered a grant. Originally it was a 3-4 person play. Sun interviewed many directors before settling on Hal Brooks. The reason: “He never said, ‘those kids’. He said, ‘our kids’. He got it.”
Sun wrote the rehearsal schedule like a unit plan, to total 6-8 weeks. She did not teach during this time. “Because the show is extremely intense, I couldn’t be 100% present in class.