As all educators can tell you, working with students demands personal strength, sensitivity, empathy, insight, and toughness — and of course knowledge of the subject matter, knowledge they are employed to teach. When heavy-duty security and hovering police officers are added to the mix, the challenges teachers face each day increase dramatically. Nilaja Sun recreates this brew in a one-woman or, one might say, a one-teacher show, “No Child,” about a teaching artist who works with students to produce a play in a high-security school. And she heightens the tensions by having her students perform a play by Timberlake Wertenbaker, “Our Country’s Good,” about Australian convicts who themselves present a play; the prison in Wertenbaker’s play echoes the fortresslike school her students attend.
As Sun weaves her way among the array of characters — herself as teaching artist, her fellow teachers, students from a variety of cultures, parents, janitors, and a security guard — she enacts the range of feelings that are part of many teachers’ daily lives. “‘No Child” is about the six weeks of ups and downs of working with students and students working with you and putting on this play — “the rollercoaster experience you feel,” she says in a phone interview. “There are so many different kinds of emotions, from fear that the kids won’t be able to put on a play because they are so resistant, to elation, to relief, to anger that some of them live such challenging and hard lives.”
Sun did not intend her play to be a political statement, but rather to convey an emotional message. “It is more for those who don’t see our American teens as having value,” she says. “Hopefully after they see the show, they would not only have met a few American teens but see that their lives are worthy.” She performs “No Child” on Thursday, January 14, at the Peddie School in Hightstown.
Sun completed the play in 2005 and started performing it in 2006. The original production at the Barrow Street Theater in New York City received an Obie Award, a Lucille Lortel Award, and two Outer Critics Circle Awards. So far Sun has presented “No Child” more than 650 times across the country, including a year of student matinees in New York.
Sun intended to be an actress when she moved back to New York City after graduating from Franklin and Marshall with a degree in English in 1996, and for two to three years she auditioned while working as a waitress and a bartender. For the first year she lived with her parents on the Lower East Side, where she grew up. Eventually Sun realized she was ready to make some changes in her life. “I really felt there’s got to be something else I can do to supplement my acting career that’s not serving people food but really serving humanity,” she says.
She had heard that many actors were becoming teaching artists and decided to try it. Her first teaching experience was tremendously challenging, especially given her own experience attending a Catholic school that highly valued discipline. “I couldn’t wrap my brain around the talking out in class, yelling at the teacher, and starting fights in the middle of the classroom,” she says. “Several times it made me want to leave.”
But that was only until she started working closely with the students to produce a play. This gave her a more complete experience, starting from the first day of class through the end of the last performance for parents and friends. “The students are feeling so happy that they put the play on and have produced scenes they created themselves, that they have interpreted a play and then performed it for folks,” she says. “That kind of beautiful experience is something I did want to experience again and again, even though it entailed the first month or so of crazy teenage angst.”
Her first gig as a teaching artist was with a group called the National Shakespeare Theater Company, which would go into schools in the five boroughs, perform a one-hour template of “Romeo and Juliet,” and then teach Shakespearean language and have the students interpret lines and respond to the play. Because the classroom time was so short, at first she was almost apologetic about invading their space to teach Shakespeare. “I didn’t walk into the classroom with a real sense of ‘This is our time now,’” she says. But then she got the hang of it. “Even if we were just meeting for hour, I learned to walk in with a real sense of purpose and rules about how to respect one another in this art class,” she says.
By the third or fourth year, Sun started working with the Epic Theater Ensemble, where teaching artists would usually partner with an English class for six weeks to three months.
Sun worked with Epic for about six years and with their help won a grant from the New York State Council for the Arts to do a piece on education. The result was “No Child.” The play grew out of her experience of the heavy-duty security her students had to go through daily. To get to class on time, they would have to get to school at least a half hour early because it would take them that long to actually get into the building.
Even though she understood that the security offered protection against the students who brought knives and guns to school, she found it very disturbing. “I realized the kids had gone through this for so many years, so they were used to it,” she says. But in some sense the idea of their being accustomed to this routine made it even worse. “It’s almost like going to the airport every single day,” she says. “I remember thinking, ‘Why do they have to get used to this?’ It made me think that perhaps they’re training them for something else — to go to jail.”
She sensed that dealing with metal detectors, security cameras, police in the halls in itself contributed to the students’ resistance to learning: “The ‘Oh, I don’t want to do this,’ ‘This is stupid,’ ‘This is dumb’ — the myriad resistance points that you feel that almost make you want to turn around.”
To be successful in this environment, suggests Sun, teachers need to open themselves up to the students’ reality. She has learned that if a teacher believes the students can rise to the occasion, they will appreciate him or her in return.
As a child, Sun loved to tell stories, do skits, and make people laugh. Even if she did not have an audience, she would amuse herself making up characters in the mirror. But she never thought this would lead to a career as a performer. “I grew up not really thinking that I wanted to be an actor but knowing in my heart that I had a million characters in me,” she says.
In fact Sun, whose father works in construction, always thought she wanted to be an obstetrician and a midwife — until she couldn’t make it through chemistry in college. “My idea was to give life to the world, but you can do that in so many different ways.”
When she turned 19, she decided that, given her propensity to tell stories, she might do well to try out some serious acting. During her senior year at Franklin and Marshall she wrote her own solo piece, “La Nubia Latina,” a term she came up with to describe herself, because she is half black and half Puerto Rican. Because there were no other actors of color at the college, Sun ended up playing all the people in the play and in other pieces she wrote, which she says really trained her to be a solo performer.
When she was preparing to perform “La Nubia Latina,” Sun thought her audience would comprise Franklin and Marshall’s multicultural student population and no one else would come. But all kinds of people showed up, and not only that, they all loved it and identified with the characters. “I realized I could write pieces that were more universal in nature even though I was really unique in race, gender, and culture,” she says.
But sometimes an artistic creation is especially moving to the particular people it focuses upon. In the case of “No Child,” teachers have responded especially strongly. “They really appreciate that I tell the real story without sugarcoating it, but show the positives as well,” says Sun.
Many have told her the play has been a real breath of fresh air for them. “When they go back to the classroom,” Sun continues, “they feel they have exhaled and have more ammunition to go in and work with kids.”
“No Child,” Peddie School, Hightstown. Thursday, January 14, 8 p.m. Nilaja Sun portrays all of the characters in the story about her experiences as a teaching artist in the New York City public schools. Rescheduled from October 15. $10. Post performance discussion. For ages 15 and up. 609-490-7550 or www.peddie.org.