By Cloteal L. Horne
Nilaja Sun is an Obie award winning Actress, Playwright, and Teaching Artist. Born and raised in the Lower East Side of New York, Nilaja is of African-American and Hispanic descent.
In 2004 Epic Theatre Ensemble commissioned Nilaja Sun, where she was the first artistic associate, to create No Child, based off of her experience as a teaching artist in the New York City school system. This one-woman show follows Miss Sun, a New York teaching artist entering into one of the toughest classrooms, attempting to teach her students through their participation in a production of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play Our Country’s Good. Nalaja Sun rifts off themes found throughout Our Country’s Good, which advocates for the transformational power of theatre and intellectual freedom, and contextualizes them within the New York City education system to highlight flaws that prevent higher learning. This story is a presentation of students, teachers, and families grappling with a decadent education system.
Nilaja began teaching in 1998. She was working with the National Shakespeare Company, performing Romeo and Juliet for highschool students. After each performance she would pair off in classrooms and teach Shakespeare’s language for an hour. Having attended Catholic school for thirteen years, the public school environment came as a shock to Nilaja. It was during this time that she began to notice major differences and inequalities in education. The major difference in students in the public school system was their lack of discipline. She recalls…
“Discipline, it was really lacking in the public schools. Some of the kids couldn’t sit still for fifteen minutes. One day they were going to be the adults of America, and I was concerned for their future and our communities. I wanted to get them out of some of the patterns that are harming them—constantly talking in class, lack of attention, negative remarks to their teachers or about themselves. That environment creates a whirlpool of darkness.”
This epiphany is what propelled Nilaja into education. Nilaja was able to find a way to unite her passion for theatre, with her love for educating. She believe that theatre is a change agent for young minds, because of it’s ability to allow them to step inside another person’s shoes.
For creating and performing No Child…, Nilaja garnered a Lucille Lortel Award, Outer Critics Circle Awards for Outstanding Solo Performance and Outstanding New American Play, a Theatre World Award, and an Obie Award. The piece was also named Best One-Person Show at the US Comdey Arts Festival in Aspen. Beyond this project Nilaja has performed in Einstein’s Gift, and Pieces of the Throne. Her other New York credits include The Adventures of the Barrio Grrrl! At Summer Play Festival, The Cool at INTSR, Huck and Holden at Cherry Lane Theatre. Law and Order: SVU, and 30 Rock. Most recently, Nilaja completed work on Coloumbia Pictures’ upcoming film The International, starring Naomi Watts and Clive Owens. As a solo performer, her projects include Black and Blue, the critically acclaimed Blues for a Gray Sun at INTAR, Due to the Tragic Events of…, Insufficient Fare, La Nubia Latina, and Mixtures. A Native of the Lower East Side, she is a Princess Grace Award Winner.
Over the 2007-2008 season alone, Sun toured No Child… to several regional theatres including the Lookingglass Theatre, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, American Repertory Theatre, Center Theatre Group, and Berkeley Repertory Theatre. She has since gone on to continue this project, but now other young actors and schools have been performing the production for their communities. “No Child…” has been licensed out to over 45 theatres nationally since 2008. Nilaja Sun’s journey with this production epitomizes the transformational power of theatre, and the change the arts can enact.
You walk into a building. You look around and see that the paint in chipping off the walls. There is water damage, and holes in the ceiling. There are kids running around yelling, screaming, and throwing things at one another. A school bell rings. A metal detector goes off. Welcome to Malcolm X Highschool. This is the environment that Miss Sun, a New York resident teaching artist, and her students enter in daily. A garden bed of learning has been transformed into a prison, where children are not only physically caged in by metal detectors, but mentally caged in by their personal circumstances as well. The same metal detectors that cultivates a sense of protection, reminds students of their educational imprisonment. Although Malcolm X High is a fictional location, the problems its’ occupants deal with are felt in many public schools. The core of this turmoil stems back to the enactment of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act established under the Bush Administration.
On January 8, 2002 President George W. Bush signed into the law the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), in hopes of providing a stronger structure for the American Education System. This landmark event certainly punctuated the power of assessment in the lives of students, teachers, parents, and others with a deep investment in the American Educational system. NCLB brought considerable clarity to the value, use, and importance of achievement testing of students in Kindergarten through highschool. Under NCLB if your child wasn’t learning, then the law was required to figure out why. Unfortunately despite its’ bests intentions the act simply served as a means of collecting data, rather than raising the standard of education. Not only are students burdened by the extensive testing, but teachers are burnt-out as well.
Jennifer Ochoa, an eighth-grade literacy teacher in New York who works with low-performing students, said the law has hurt morale among educators as well as students, who feel they have to do well on a standardized test or are failures, no matter how much progress they make. “Afterward, it didn’t matter how far you came if you didn’t make this outside goal,” Ochoa said. “We started talking about kids in very different ways. We started talking about kids in statistical ways instead of human being terms.” Now more than ten years later the education system is still reeling from the repercussions of the No Child Left Behind act. In fact the mentality of teaching to the test and not the student has only accelerated our youth’s path to incarceration.
Through research it has become clear that when young people do not engage and learn in schools, the possibility of creating an economically sustainable life becomes next to impossible, so instead they find a way to create a life of luxury that is more conducive to a lifestyle they are familiar with. This often includes a life of crime, which sets our youth on a fast track to prison. The standard of learning established by the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind policy has placed a band-aid on the issues the American School system is facing, and created a directed pipeline from school’s to prison for our already under privileged youth.
In No Child… we see students, teachers, and families grappling with this decadent education system. It is a rude awaking to the pitfalls in the American education system. However similarly to our current plight in education, No Child doesn’t provide answers, but rather it advocates for the transformational power of theatre and intellectual freedom. As Miss Sun gets her students to participate in a production of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play Our Country’s Good, they learn that they can transcend the emotional rubble they were born into.
Over the 2007-2008 season, Sun toured No Child… to several regional theatres including the Lookingglass Theatre, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, American Repertory Theatre, Center Theatre Group, and Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
Other Productions of No Child…:
No Child… has been licensed out to over 45 theatres nationally since 2008.
The Black Reparatory (2012); Stanford University Department of Drama (2011);Weston Playhouse Theatre Company (2008); Wilmington Drama League (2011); Highschool Production: Messmer High School (2012); InnerMission Productions: Mesa College (2012); Gablestage: Baltimore (2009); Amphibian Stage Productions (2010).
Articles/ Works consulted: