Last night I went to see a performance of Nilaja Sun’s one-woman play No Child. . . at PlayMakers Repertory Theatre on UNC Chapel Hill’s campus. The play, which Sun has been touring since 2005 and which she has now performed over 700 times, comes out of her experiences working as a teaching artist in New York City’s public schools. Transitioning deftly among the sixteen characters in the show, Sun embodies a dysfunctional community of teachers and students in a sixty-five minute performance, narrated not by the character of Sun herself but by the school’s custodian who observes the struggles unfolding around him with the empathy and omniscience of the Stage Manager from Our Town. The janitor sees not only the children who are raising themselves while their single mothers work three jobs and the teachers who fear their own pupils but also the failing infrastructure that surrounds them: holes in the ceilings, bathrooms that have not been functional for years, the steady stream of faculty, staff, and students who leave the school abruptly and do not return. Security guards and NYPD officers flank the entrances to Malcolm X High School (the play’s setting), screening all who enter with metal detectors and X-ray machines. This security equipment appears to be the most expensive and new technology in a school where little else seems new or technologically advanced. The fictional Malcolm X High where No Child. . . takes place and the real schools where Sun continues to work as a teaching artist have failed their young charges for so many years that hardly anyone in the system can imagine an effective formula for change.
In the play, Sun enters a class deemed one of the toughest in the school with a plan to stage a production of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good in six weeks. Though the students have no theatrical or performing arts background, Sun manages to get them interested in this play by helping them to articulate the ways in which the prisoners in Our Country’s Good are constrained by social forces not dissimilar from those the students face every day. As the students in the classroom begin to relate to the script, they list the many ways in which they feel like they are treated like prisoners in their daily lives. The litany of reasons includes the screenings of their bodies and belongings as they enter school each day, the orders shouted to them from parents and teachers, and the fear that they inspire in the adults on New York’s buses and subways. In a mirroring of the plot of the Wertenbaker play, Sun’s students find new levels of self-confidence, discipline, and hope in performing a play for the first time; they can begin to imagine what their own versions of success might look like because they have been made to feel important, accomplished, and recognized, and they know that they have earned this sense of achievement because the road to opening night was not at all easy.
As much as all of us arts teachers in the world would love to believe the pretty fiction that creative expression can somehow save us all, it’s never that simple, in real life or in Sun’s play. Not all of Sun’s characters survive to the end of No Child. . . and those who do don’t waltz off into the sunset, though at least one of them gets a degree from an Ivy League college. What arts programming, like that described in this play and enacted by Sun through her work in the public schools, can do very effectively is to open a window of possibility. Not all students will be able to completely transform their lives, but as Sun said in the discussion after last night’s performance, arts teachers can help students recognize their own humanity and become more whole, while curriculum designed to prepare students for standardized tests has the opposite effect.
Every one of the student characters in No Child. . . reminded me of kids I have met in juvenile detention centers during the years that I have done theatre work in youth detention facilities. For well over a decade now scholars have been pointing to the “education to incarceration pipeline” as being one of the strong causes of our skyrocketing rates of imprisonment among minors. When young people do not learn in school that they have viable prospects for a fulfilling and economically sustainable life, they often turn to crime as a way to make easy money or attain their goals of self-sufficiency and luxury. Teaching to meet the standards of the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind policy in fact has caused a great many children to be lifted out of the system entirely and placed in locked facilities where their test scores will never be measured. In moments of educational malaise or more active crises (as we saw in the New Orleans public schools after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita) we authorize police to enter schools to maintain the peace, and as a result disciplinary measures which are ordinarily handled by school administrators, such as truancy and minor fights among students, become prosecutable crimes. Brian Bilsky and Meda Chesney Lind’s chapter in Razor Wire Women does an excellent job of explaining how we hold children as prisoners for crimes that adults cannot commit, such as running away. No Child. . . is a frightening wake up call for those who have not seen first hand how little hope so many young people in failing schools now have, and at the same time it is an excellent reminder that performance can help struggling students and Sun’s audiences alike to imagine a better future for us all.