5th row. House left. Fences. Mom and Pop. Saturday night.
I am from the Lower East Side of New York. A beautifully diverse neighbourhood filled to the brim with colour, life, and the stamp of the immigrant experience. Growing up, I felt the beauty of the diversity, delighted in the taste of foods from all over the world and absorbed the sound of the many accents that dominated this unique part of the Big Apple. This taste for difference followed me everywhere I went. From the strict Catholic Schools that I was taught in next door to the Stonewall Inn, to the bohemians of Washington Square Park next door to that. We didn't have lots of money but boy, did we have tons of imagination.
It was this imagination that found its way to show time in my living room. Every night, I'd come home from school and tell Mom and Pop the stories of the day. I wouldn't just tell the story, I would become the story. From the elderly lady who I shared the elevator with that morning to the bus driver who was at his wits' end with us screaming Lower East Side kids that afternoon to the man at the corner store after school yelling about his disgust for every dog in the world, I became each person and I loved it.
Nilaja Sun on stage in Pike St. (Image: Teresa Castracane)
These living room performances gave my Pop the idea to take me to see a show. So, one Saturday afternoon, all three of us got dressed in our finest, ate dinner at the fanciest restaurant Pop could afford and walked into the 46th St. Theatre. The usher sat us down. 5th row. House left. When the stage lights rose, on walked the tallest man in the world in my eyes. It was James Earl Jones. As I watched the goings on in this fictionalised family, I was mesmerised. The beautiful mom, played by Mary Alice, was in such pain but seemed to carry it with such grace, and the son, played by Courtney B. Vance, was so handsome, also in such pain but so valiant.
This staunch yet beautiful grace was something I witnessed in the eyes of my folks and my Lower East Side neighbours every day but could never put into words at 12 years old. They, on that stage, were me and I was them. Sitting in this Broadway theatre witnessing Fences with my Mom and Pop on this Saturday night was the beginning of a great journey for me. And I am still on that path.
As my career as an actor was blossoming, my path as a teaching artist in New York City's "high-impact inner city" schools was also thriving. I wanted to see if I could bring the feeling I had experienced at August Wilson's Fences that night to my students in their classrooms. Theatre is the perfect medium for these teens to tell their own story. And in overcrowded classrooms where finding focus can be a challenge, it can be a vital learning tool. These are young folks who have been told that their very existence does not matter in the world. They tell stories of pain, heartache, betrayal, as well as triumph, coming out and forgiveness.
Pike St. plays at the Edinburgh Fringe (Image: Teresa Castracane)
I worked as a teaching artist in some of New York's most arts-deprived schools for seven years before I wrote No Child..., an award-winning play named after the Bush Administration's controversial 2001 'No Child Left Behind Act'. It touches on the political and social themes that these students experience every day: single parents working three jobs, failing school infrastructure and support systems, the weight of lowered expectations. "Don't nobody expect us to do nothing but drop out, get pregnant, go to jail...," says one character.
Arts education for these young people is the most spiritual work I've ever done. I start most classes by simply asking them to say their own names, with pride. Over the past five summers, I've had the unique privilege of working as a teaching artist and mentor with the arts in education nonprofit Epic Theatre Ensemble. Their aim is to create bold work with and for diverse communities that promotes vital discourse and social change - and especially to inspire students to be creative and engaged citizens.
I work on a program called Epic NEXT, which prepares students for college. Watching my student mentees who have all written and performed their own solo pieces as well take part in creating full - length plays centered around social justice, activism and civic engagement has been one of the greatest joys of my life. 100% of Epic NEXT graduates have enrolled in college, against about 65% in their economic and academic demographics, including 21 students who are the first in their family to attend college.
Many of them have used their solo performance skills in their colleges to create solo work, plays and theatrical projects, all with the themes of equality and social justice. They have realised that speaking out is an absolute must in our country, now more than ever.
And I am realising that I am truly on the right path. A path paved by sitting in that seat in the 5th row house left watching Fences with Mom and Pop on that Saturday night.
Pike St. plays at the Roundabout @ Summerhall until August 27 (not 15 or 22) at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Tickets available at www.edfringe.com.