Several nights ago I had a new, fun experience. Playmakers, our local repertory company, called and asked if I would be part of a post-play panel discussion. Loving live theater and feeling very excited, I instantly agreed even though there is truly no time for such things… The play is called No Child. The author, Nilaja Sun, has been performing the show for five years to much critical acclaim. In the show, she writes plays 17 characters all of whom are part of a fictional New York City public school in the Bronx. The play brings the reality of teaching in an arts poor, inner city community to life in a way in which the audience is able to feel compassion for all of the characters. There are no villains and no heroes – just people kids, adults, parents, administrators, teachers, students trying to do too much with too little, becoming discouraged, finding their voice, losing it again, and achieving moments of transcendence but not necessarily a lifetime of it. It was not “Stand and Deliver,” where everyone aces the AP calculus test and the audience feels great. The play was thought-provoking and left me thinking about what constitutes success in working in very difficult environments.
UNC is a “research one” university. We want to find solutions to society’s “wicked problems” as our chancellor has referred to them. To do so requires measurement rubrics, scales, pre and post-tests, randomized trials, etc., etc. all of which are absolutely necessary to do good science. But art, like this play, sometimes conveys what science cannot. No Child is a “play within a play” about a teaching artist’s struggle to engage a class of inner city students in a six week effort to analyze and perform a play for their school. We get to know and care about each of these exceedingly difficult teens as well as their regular classroom teachers and administrators along the way. Through the small miracles that are a daily part of education, they do engage with the teaching artist and a play is produced – an outcome which seems unlikely at the start. But what the play does not do is pretend that one positive experience will solve everything. In the epilogue, the narrator provides a ‘what happened to whom’ kind of re-cap. Only one or two of the characters has what we would call a “good” outcome. One announces her too early pregnancy immediately following the play, another is killed a week later in a gang incident, and another is lost to the mean streets of his community. Yet, they had all experienced a moment of transcendence, a moment in which they did something that they did not believe they could do, in which they learned something about themselves and connected their own lives to the wider human experience. What is a moment like that worth? Is it worth the cost of the grant that brought the teaching artist to the school? Is it only worth it only if it lowers the drop-out rate or improves end of grade test scores? Of course not. Moments of transcendence make us more human, more compassionate, better citizens, better parents, better neighbors. If we have enough of them, they may even affect those outcomes that science needs so much to demonstrate. Toward the close of the play, the teen who tells her teacher of her pregnancy says something like, “Why are you crying? Why does everybody cry when I tell them? Don’t worry. I’m going to take my baby to see things and have adventures because you showed me I could.” Is that enough to make the students’ play worth the blood, sweat, and tears, not to mention the resources, it took to produce it? To answer that question risks a reductionism that dehumanizes us. But by putting science and art together, we may have a shot at those wicked problems that be-devil us.