Nilaja Sun is well on her way to becoming a household name in Melbourne. Last year No Child premiered at the Melbourne International Arts Festival and received a host of rave reviews from both critics and audiences alike.
But the story of a newly employed drama teacher coming to terms with the stark realities of teaching in state schools in New York is more than just a fast-paced comedy, it is as Sun makes explicit in her conversation with writer Dione Joseph, a call for a revolution in the education system.
“Having been a teaching artist since 1998 in New York public schools I have had the opportunity to witness first-hand what happens in these schools and it’s a story worth sharing,” says Sun. “I want audiences to know what really happens, to experience even for a short while, how the system operates.”
Epic Theatre Ensemble invited Sun to write a piece about education with a focus on schools which don’t have the funding for a long-term drama teacher. Sun’s motivation to develop No Child stemmed from the realization that there was a dire need for youth to have access to theatre within their curriculum.
“When I was writing this I had already taught in about 40 schools so I had worked with hundreds of kids and met scores of teachers. I wanted to do a funny piece but to really emphasize my message that teachers are doing wonderful work and much of what they do is unseen.”
The story revolves around the students of Malcolm X High, one of the “roughest” schools in New York. Having been brought up on the Lower East Side, Sun knows exactly what it is like to feel that your world is limited to a 4km radius.
[pull_left]Opportunities always seemed to be for other people, not for me. I wanted to let kids know that yes, there are opportunities for you, every single one of you, and there are teachers who are willing to help you on your journey[/pull_left]
“Opportunities always seemed to be for other people, not for me. I wanted to let kids know that yes, there are opportunities for you, every single one of you, and there are teachers who are willing to help you on your journey.”
No Child is unequivocally a work that challenges the current educational system in America, but it also reveals a plethora of characters, each of whom have a unique role in contributing to the narrative.
“I want my audiences to see how fabulous these kids really are,” says Sun. “Whether teachers, parents or students, if they walk out of my show with a glimmer of understanding and empathy for young people like Jerome… then we have the seeds of change.”
Having performed No Child over 800 times Sun says that her greatest satisfaction comes from the stories people share with her after the show.
“I always wait outside after the show to talk to people,” she says.
“Sometimes that’s all that teachers really want, somebody who is willing to listen to their story and take a few moments to talk about their world. This world of teaching, it’s more than a career it’s a life choice.”
And it’s not just drama lessons that Sun chooses to impart.
“When students look at me they see a woman who enjoys what she does, I act and I perform and I choose to do something I love,” she explains. “I want my students to realise that they are global citizens and that their life hasn’t just been tucked away into a tiny corner, they are free to make the decision that will change their world.”
As No Child increasingly becomes an essential in theatre-in-education programmes, Sun is both inspired and humbled.
“Sometimes teachers don’t even get a chance to breathe and when they come and see this production they realize, ‘Hey I was the star of this show!’ If they walk away elated then that’s half my job done.”
With her first week of shows almost sold out, Theatre Works has extended its season. It’s easy to see why. No Child is a striking work, both for its charisma and utter honesty as it disembowels assumptions about the American public school system.
Season: Tuesday 7 – 26 May
Times: Tues-Sat at 8pm; Wed & Thurs at 1pm; Sun at 5pm
Bookings: theatreworks.org.au or (03) 9534 3388
Tickets: $45 full / $35 con & under 30 / $40 groups 10+ (plus booking fee)
Venue: Theatre Works, 14 Acland Street, St Kilda