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As I was entering college in the state of New Jersey way back when in 2005, the “safe bet” for many arts lovers was to get a teaching degree. This “safe bet” took on a whole new meaning in 2010; with imminent cuts to the state’s public education budget, available teaching jobs in New Jersey were suddenly called into question.
This new situation, paired with the timely release of the school system documentary Waiting for Superman, caused an explosion of national discussion. Now that same topic of education reform is coming to the Two River Theater in the form of the critically acclaimed No Child…, written and performed by theatre and teaching artist Nilaja Sun.
Originally performed in 2006 at the Epic Theatre Center and then produced Off-Broadway at the Barrow Street Theatre soon after, No Child… is a 16-character play, each one brought to life by Sun. The characters are composites of students, principals, janitors and teaching artists Sun met in her own time teaching, something she’s been doing since 1998. Education wasn’t always a field she planned to pursue professionally; instead, Sun says, it was something she found on the way to seeking an arts career. “I never really wanted to teach because I always thought it was so hard and so challenging.”
Her thoughts changed after one gig she got working on classic theatre with New York City students. “I did Shakespeare with the kids with the National Shakespeare Company in New York City, going to many different high schools all across the city and doing a one hour template of Romeo and Juliet. I really fell in love with the kids and their sense of humor and their spirit and it was very hard for me to walk away from it.” Soon after that experience Sun found herself searching for more and more teaching gigs and has since ended up working in around 60 New York City schools. From there No Child… began being its development and became Sun’s “love letter to all those experiences.”
While dialogue on the status of the New Jersey School system continues, No Child… spends its time in the classroom. “Although the play has what some consider a political title, it’s more about an actual classroom and the workings of a classroom,” explained Sun. “It’s more about a teacher and students’ relationship rather than what’s going on in the educational system or outside the classroom.” This approach to the piece makes it well-suited as a match for Two River Theater’s PlayBack program, an educational enterprise that allows student actors to create and perform an original work over the course of 12 weeks inspired by themes of one of Two River’s main stage productions. Sun will get the chance to work with these students for part of their process. “It’s really exciting to me to know that there is a life beyond No Child… after it closes in the actual community. It says a lot about the dedication that Two River has for it’s younger audiences.”
From its 2006 creation, to its involvement with Two River and their PlayBack program, No Child has had an incredible impact. To anyone concerned about education, No Child… serves as not only a solid discussion starter, but also a celebration of what it is possible to achieve in the classroom. Sun has two goals with the piece: “First, I would love if afterwards people said ‘I could see the soul of one teenager on that stage,” and two, just to acknowledge the glorious work teachers do day in and day out. It’s a real important job and it always gets overlooked. I want people to know teachers exist in our world.”
“No Child…” plays through November 20 at Two River Theater Company; Jersey Arts Members receive two-for-one tickets to Wednesday and Thursday performances.