No Child…

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No Child…

By Nilaja Sun

Directed by Tarah Flanagan

Co-Sponsored by Char & Bill Carlson

“I do know there’s a hole in the fourth-floor ceiling ain’t been fixed since ‘87, all the bathrooms on the third floor, they all broke. Now, who’s accountable for dat?”

Based on her time as a teaching artist in New York City public schools, Nilaja Sun’s one person show invites you into the classroom where a group of 10th graders in an under-resourced school are putting on a play. Full of heart and humor, No Child asks that together we look at the ways our school system is failing our children while also honoring and uplifting the tireless people working within those walls. With themes that have remained relevant since its premiere in 2007, this production also hopes to facilitate conversation within the Winona community about its own school system as well as the effects of the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act.

Who you should bring:

A friend looking to enter the discussion about school systems – maybe even their own.

Content warning: Contains strong language.

Cast & Artistic Staff

Melissa Maxwell


Tarah Flanagan


Lighting Design Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz

Sound Design: Scott O’Brien

Dramaturg: Victoria Teague

Stage Manager: Madison Tarchala

Assistant Stage Manager: Alexander Carey

Properties Supervisor: Ivy Thomas

Assistant Lighting Desigher: Avery Reagan

Special Events & Offers

PWYW (Pay What You WILL) Previews:

Catch the final stages of the rehearsal process during our PWYW Previews! You can see the show before the opening of the season and pay whatever you are able for your ticket. These tickets are not available online – call the Box Office or stop by in person to reserve a seat to the PWYW Preview performance. Then make sure to tell your friends about what you saw and invite them back for the “real” thing!

Opening Night, Saturday, July 6th

No Child… opens Saturday, July 6 at 7:30 p.m.

$12 Tuesday

Every Tuesday during the season is a $12 Tuesday (excludes Callithump!). All regular tickets are only $12 no matter where you sit (student tickets $10). Make sure to get yours early – these sell out quickly! $12 Tuesday for No Child… is July 23rd at 7:30 p.m.

Post-Show Discussions

Please join us after the performance of NO CHILD to engage in discussion about the themes of the play with a panel of local citizens involved in the education system and solo performer Melissa Maxwell.

Wednesday, July 17th after the 7:30pm performance – Dan Bucknam (professor at St. Mary’s University, member of the WAPS foundation board), Michael Hanratty (WAPS school board member), Melissa Maxwell (performer)

Friday, July 26th after the 7:30pm performance – Debbie Berhow (Counseling Secretary at Winona Middle School, Director with WSHS Theatre), JuCoby Johnson (Teaching Artist, Race and Identity Facilitator), Melissa Maxwell (performer)

Chill with Will (Thursday evenings)

Chill with Will: GRSF provides FREE tickets for students age 11 – 18 to a selected performance of each professional production. With programming tailored to students before the performance, and a Company Conversation after, GRSF is passionate about welcoming students to the theater. All students are encouraged  to reserve their free Chill with Will ticket through the Box Office in advance. Guardians wishing to accompany a student must purchase a ticket. Chill with Will tickets must be reserved over the phone or in person. Not available online.

Check back in Summer 2019 for No Child… production photos.

A discussion between No Child… playwright and original performer Nilaja Sun and dramaturg Victoria Teague. 

V: Can you tell me about working as a teaching artist in New York City and what drew you to teaching? 

N: Yeah! So I actually still work as a teaching artist so I always say when I’m not acting I’m teaching, when I’m not teaching I’m acting because it’s kind of like I have dual missions in this life. The first being the telling of stories, whether it be through acting or through writing, and the second just fostering the imaginations of young artists, particularly those who are in neighborhoods and situations where art is not necessarily seen as something that is important. I was calculating and Victoria, I’ve been doing it for twenty years. 

V: Wow! 

N: Yeah, yeah and it really started because I was waiting tables and there was this man who ordered a black and blue steak. And I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a black and blue steak but basically it’s charred on the outside and rare, I mean, raw, like the cow is still alive, on the inside. So when he put his knife into that steak and I just saw the blood coming out and I saw him eating it and then the blood dripping down his face I was like, okay, if I am truly going to be an actor, I have to do something on the side or parallel to this that really makes me feel like I’m doing something for the betterment of the world. You know? So I wound up in 2000 saying you know what, I’m just going to teach. And I started with the National Shakespeare Company and we performed a one hour template of Romeo and Juliet in schools and taught iambic pentameter to students. And it was there that I recognized that not only was Shakespeare really interesting to the kids, but they felt so good doing iambic pentameter even if it was just for a 44 minute class. And I also realized that my heart and soul belonged in these schools because there’s so much untapped talent and excellence and brains in our schools that people just turn their backs to. 

V: That’s great. And you still do it, you’re still teaching… 

N: Still doing it, still teaching. I’m still loving it, I’m still always the shortest person in the room. I always feel like the youngest teenager, like I’m the wackiest person in the room. And this is a very interesting new generation of students coming up as opposed to twenty years ago. I know that a lot of folks kind of look down on millennials and that generation behind millennials, a lot of people say ehh that PC culture sucks, but because they’re entrenched in it their souls seem to be so much more open to the other, at least in the particular schools I work in. 

V: Wow, more compassion in a way? 

N: Absolutely, yeah. More compassion and also, just last week I was working in Newark and I asked the students: what is something that you know for sure, like really for sure, in your moral compass. And one of the students said, I believe that homosexuality is a choice and you’re not born with it. Now twenty years ago there would have been a lot of people you know, nodding their heads being like yeahh it’s a choice it’s a choice…but the whole class, first they listened to what he had to say, fully. And then, I couldn’t believe the mature debate that folks had with him. I mean, really empathetic, really loving, trying to understand his point of view but also trying to help him understand their point of view. It was so open and I would have never seen anything like that twenty years ago. And it just made me so proud. So, I’ll always be a teaching artist I feel like. Even when I’m ninety I’ll be dippin it and doin it with the kids. 

V: So to go from there into No Child, what was that like, writing a play based on those real life experiences? How much of you is in the play? How much of you is Ms. Sun? 

N: It’s a lot. So much. All of the characters, including Ms. Sun, are combinations of different people that I’ve met throughout my life. So Ms. Sun is me but she’s also other teaching artists and teachers that I’ve worked with, and also the playwright, me. I’m trying to tell the story so there are times when the playwright kind of pulls Ms. Sun into a more confused place than I am. And that’s only because I knew that there would be people in the audience who had never been in inner city or public schools before and they would probably be like, why are these kids acting like this? Detention for everyone! And so I kind of had to pull her back into a place of not knowing so much so that the kids could shine. And then it could be more of a story about them shining rather than Ms. Sun figuring things out. Even the building itself, Malcolm X High School, was a combination of so many different schools that I’d worked in because by then I’d worked in probably 35 to 50 schools. 

V: In terms of it being a solo show, why was that the format that really struck you as best for this story? 

N: Well I had done five solo pieces before that so I was kind of becoming known as a solo performer. But I wrote this play for about 3-5 actors. I didn’t really write it thinking I was going to play all these parts because at that time I had never seen it done. I hadn’t seen whole scenes of multiple characters talking to each other in one body. I’d done monologues and sometimes I had done little multi-charactered scenes but never a full play just back and forth craziness! So, I wrote it thinking about the best. I always tell my students this…think about the best actors in your mind. Think about the Meryl Streeps and the Denzels doing this play. And then if you happen to wind up doing it, just find a really good director, which is what I did when I performed it! Hal Brooks, he was the one who was responsible for making it look good. I said, I’m not going to be responsible for that, that’s your job! But because these are my students and combinations of them, I already had the body language, there was never a need to find physicality. Also, I was working with a group called Epic Theatre Center, now they’re called Epic Theatre Ensemble, and they were the ones who originally came up to me and said: hey we’d love to commission you to write a piece about education. And I said ooohhh ho ho I know exactly what to do. Because I don’t know if people knew what teaching artists even were. A lot of folks back then just thought, oh you’re a drama teacher, why don’t these schools have drama teachers…and you’d have to explain that the arts are taken out of the equation completely and some principals who truly believe in their students and the health of the culture of the school will find the money to pay arts organizations to bring in a teaching artist like myself. So I really wanted to show the 4-6 week long workshop craziness, funness, sadness, tears, and the way it ends in one fell swoop. And in the end I wound up doing it as a solo piece. I thought I was going to do it for maybe, I don’t know, fourteen shows, and now, years later, I’m still dippin it and doin it Victoria. 

V: That’s awesome. And writing and performing all of those characters did you find that you were learning even more about those students and teachers? Did you have any sort of perspective shift as a result of developing those characters? 

N: I think the perspective shift came after performing the show. Whereas I really wrote it because at 3pm every afternoon in New York City, Monday through Friday, all the students descend upon the subway system. And I can see the faces, the faces of the adults who are not used to teenagers – not used to the loud voices, the scattered energy, the all over the place physicality. And you can see the fear in their eyes. And I said, what if I could just write a play, and if you saw this play and you were on that train with those kids you wouldn’t have so much fear in your heart. You could see them as individuals rather than a mob of teenage craziness. And you could see that they have lives and hearts and most of the time the reason that they’re all over the place is because they’ve been in school for hours and also, they kind of 

see you as an audience. They see the subway adults as their audience in an odd way, so they’re performing. And some of them have to go home to situations that are pretty hard on your heart so this is their one moment, before they go home, of expression. 

V: Why did you choose to feature the play Our Country’s Good in No Child? Did you ever actually teach that play? 

N: I never actually taught Our Country’s Good only for the simple fact that it is pretty graphic, however at the same time if I had a senior AP theatre class or AP lit class I think I would definitely teach it and we could perform scenes. Also, the women are all prostitutes, God bless em. And to me personally as a woman, as someone who really wants to foster the kind of expression in young women to be anything that they want to be, especially young women of color, to have a play where they’re all prostitutes is kind of going backwards a little bit. But I was on a train once with a few teaching artist buddies before I wrote No Child, and one of them said it was like the school was training the kids to go to prison. So, now this is an idea that is well known in the American lexicon right? The school to prison pipeline? But at that time that was something that was really pretty new. And after she said that, I went back into schools and it is so true! Because I also work in prisons Victoria, and when I go into these mens federal prisons I’m basically back in a public school. It feels the exact same. The only thing that’s different is that it takes me longer to get into the federal prison between all of the doors and having to take out your this, your that…but you still have to do a lot of that in the public schools. So that’s the main reason I chose Our Country’s Good. For the simple fact that I feel like a lot of times as adults, we see our kids who come from certain circumstances and we just do not believe that they can be anything above or outside of what they see. And some kids have such big imaginations that it’s us who actually dash their dreams. You know? 

V: Yes, based on where you come from and your circumstances… 

N: Yes! Absolutely. And I think that’s one of the reasons I continue to go into the schools. Because people ask me if I’m still working in the schools, like it’s beneath me, but I think a lot of students need to see what a working artist looks like. They hear about us, but they don’t know that we really exist. They need to see actors who are not making millions but who love it so much. They also need to see our process because I think a lot of students think that they’re odd for having artistic processes when they’re learning, and so when we come in we can show them that not everything has to be the way school is formatting it for you. 

V: I think it’s great that you also have a background in Shakespeare and now we’re doing your play at a Shakespeare festival! What’s your connection to Shakespeare? Do you find any parallels between your work and Shakespeare’s? Is there anything Shakespearean about your process? For the Shakespeare nerds in the crowd! 

N: Probably what I said earlier about seeing that students who learned iambic pentameter, even in a short period of time, how successful they felt. How accomplished they felt. And at the same time how poetic they felt. But also how hip hop they felt too you know? And seeing the parallels between this music form that they listen to everyday and this art form that still exists in the hearts and minds of so many folks. And the fact that one man, I guess depending on if you think of it as just one man or you know…his, her, their words are still being said. And this is one of the reasons why I continue to go back into the schools. Because I need for students to understand that I was just a teaching artist writing a play not even thinking a lot of folks were going to want to hear about arts in the schools, and yet to this day people are still doing the show. And so your words are so powerful. Your art is powerful and it can transcend time. So give that to the Shakespeare nerds. 

V: Can you talk to me about some of the responses you’ve gotten from educators, students, parents? 

N: I think it was the third performance that I realized oh, teachers are gonna really love this play! And because there aren’t many plays that are just for teachers or just honor teachers it seems like it’s very healing for a lot of teachers from all around the world. I have teachers bring their families to see No Child which to me says that they want to share this experience with their family members as well as their family members who just have no idea what they’re talking about when they come home. They just give them a ticket and say, here, watch this, she’s telling it. I told you that happens! 

V: Yeah, my sister is a high school teacher and she is as much a counselor as she is anything else. She’s pretty new to it but she’s excellent, she’s wonderful, and these kids need her and it’s one of those things where I tell her that all the time and at the same time she’s so tired and she’s like I don’t know that I can do this…it reminded me, I was thinking of her a lot when I was reading your play. I love that line that you have in the script about teaching being the hardest job in the world and yet there are people every day who feel like they’re called to do it for their whole lives. And I completely agree that someone needs to be like, look at these teachers! Look at all they do! 

N: I know. And in fact, I think Kamala Harris was recently talking about the fact that teachers around the country need raises, period. Not even a question mark. Period. Because so many of us take from our own pockets for supplies and the amount of time and dedication…and you know the thing about it too is that if I were to have another life Victoria, I would be a person who goes around schools with a cart of really good food. Because teachers don’t eat well. You can’t possibly because even if you do pack your stuff up every single day there’s no time to eat, there’s literally no time to drink water, there’s no time to pee. It’s like your body is the last thing that you think about and so that times five every week times fifty-two every year times years upon years, it’s clear why the burnout happens. It’s just, physically, there’s no time to think about your body. 

V: What do you hope audiences take away from No Child? Is there anything in particular that you would send out into the universe about your play? 

N: In probably the simplest terms I would say everyone deserves to be onstage. Everyone deserves to either have their stories told or tell a story. Everyone deserves to be seen. And when we, as older folks out of high school and college, take the ability and the satisfaction of being seen from our young Americans trying their best to just survive, even if it’s just for one night, that is a tremendous detriment to their soul and their lives. So if we can continue to work so that everyone feels that light, that there is nobody who is invisible, there is literally nobody left behind, that’s what I would like to shoot out into the universe.