Nijala Sun’s off-Broadway one-woman show is a marathon of a performance the New York native performs night after night – an exhausting experience, designed to match the emotional trials and lack of support in the average NYC public school teacher’s day. No Child… is based on her experience as a teaching artist at Malcolm X High School in the Bronx, where she led a group of 10th graders in a production of Timberlake Wertenbacker’s Our Country’s Good. When she was in high school, Ms. Sun lived in the Lower East Side and attended Catholic school, but after eight years of service in the public school system, she knows what’s going on in that world, and wants you to know too.
The L Magazine: I was on line for the bathroom after the show, and I overheard a woman say, “I feel like I just had an experience. I feel like I need to do something.” Did you write the show as a call to action? Nijala Sun: Definitely. I got a grant to do a play about the public school system and I thought, well this is a great opportunity for me to figure out a way to write something that will kind of make people want to do something as opposed to present them with a group of theatrical statistics that make them feel depressed so they just want to go home and drink.
The L: You’re covering familiar territory with the focus on the pubic school system, but there is something different about your performance – realism, sensitivity – how have you tried to differentiate it from previous explorations of the subject? NS: Well when you do a solo piece, you have the audience right there with you and although you are very vulnerable because its just you up there, the audience is very vulnerable too. Because all they have to depend on is you, and so you kinda got to give them a nice womb of love so that they know that they can relax and enjoy the show without worrying, “Is she going to throw a bunch of politics at me?” or “Is she going to make me feel really bad about myself or feel really bad about my lack of information about what’s going on?”
The L: An issue you brought to the forefront is that so many teachers really are under-qualified – you have these kids doing Teach for America and whatnot who see teaching as a pit stop, not a profession. NS: Yea I see a lot of that, and actually a lot of the Teach for America candidates as well as the actual teachers and the teaching fellows, they come to the show. One of them, I met two days ago, she quit teaching, and then she saw the show and she wants to go back to teaching. She just felt so under-supported by the faculty. That’s really what they talk to me about. They don’t have some of the mental foundation to know what to do in most situations in the public school and then they are just thrown in there. They are very young, and all of their hearts are in such a good place. They aren’t there for money or anything but most of them are really there to change the school system.
The L: What about your role, that of a teaching artist? Are these programs growing? NS: Yea. I think that Teaching Artist its just one of those growing kind of jobs – NYU has a graduate program for students who want to be teaching artists. But I think that its so important for teaching artists not only to go into the schools and work with the kids, and have their structure and their lesson plan, but they should also be artists – working artists, people who are trying to make things happen with their own artistic careers, trying to make things happen in terms of bringing art into the world, because if not, then you just become an artist who is internally an artist but just works with the kids and doesn’t really do it on the outside. I can always tell when a teaching artist is not actually an artist but is just someone going into the school.
The L: When you were writing the play, did it ever cross your mind for it to not be a solo piece? NS: I totally wrote it as a play, as if four or five people would perform it. And then the more I was writing it, the more I thought I would love to do this as a solo piece because part of the biggest issue and conflict in the schools that we are expecting super teachers – we are expecting one person to help out all of these kids, one teacher, and it’s a lot on a person. In a way I wanted to show what its like to have one person going through all of those things, even though this is more of a visceral journey, its not real. Someone in their life wouldn’t go through all these characters in a day, or an hour actually, so it’s a little schizophrenic but at the same time I feel like people should understand that teachers go through this almost every day. The weird quality of doing a one person show in an hour, and never drinking water, and just like going, going, going – that’s what a lot of our teachers go through, you know? And we are expecting them to go through this and not have any help, in a way. The idea is to show one person doing all this.
The L: Your play is so based in realism, but at the end it turns kind of fantastical, with the narrator’s life after death and the positive future projections for the students. Why did you take it in this direction, and when dealing with such a real issue, is it even safe? NS: Someone came up to me the other day, and he was in a nice suit and tie, and he was like, wow congratulations it’s been a really great show, too bad that never happens at the end, too bad its not such a positive ending. And having taught for 8 years, there are positive endings. I have a student now who is studying photography in London. And I have another student who is studying to become a doctor. There are fantastic moments, and then there are moments when I walk into Rikers, with the program, and I see one of my students, so it’s all over the place. But Shandrika becoming the Mayor of New York City, that happened because I have a friend who was from the Bronx, and went to public school, and I went to college with her, and she had one of the biggest attitudes in the world. And I thought, what on earth is she gonna do with herself? And she’s now like a really top lawyer – a big, high paid lawyer. And I thought to myself, well it is possible for them to make, even if when they are teens they have the biggest attitude.
The L: It might be why they can make it. NS: And also, it’s that they are part of the community. Some people are like, why did you add that? And some people are like, I’m so glad you added that to show – that they are not just living in the Bronx to be kept from all of society but they are in fact a whole part of society and they will live amongst us and their kids will live amongst our kids.