Money follows the child: Ethan Lipton’s “Talent Show” attacks American education
“Money follows the child. “Performing the role of Robert, John Ellison Conlee sang this line which is at the heart of Ethan Lipton’s new musical. Talent show. Last week, The Civilians presented a workshop on Lipton’s new work, the culmination of years spent on this project that began with the Civilians’ residency at Duke University in North Carolina. During their stay, Lipton and The Civilians set out to explore the debate on charter schools and their impact on public education. They conducted research and interviews with teachers, administrators, policy makers, school counselors, parents, etc. Talent show brings those voices and perspectives to life in a good old-fashioned classic of school competitions: the talent show.
Pitted against each other in songs with various special talents also added to the mix of performances, each character competed for public schools or charter schools as they explained issues and their experiences. We first meet the judges of the talent show: Alvin, played by Bryan Holden Chan (The Lion King), and Gladys, played by Tatum Hall who is best known for her work in the movies Night is coming and Wu-Tang: an American saga. Hall has also played Gladys in previous workshops of Talent show. Taking turns providing information and pun filled jokes, Gladys and Alvin set up the show’s light and rather casual tone before sitting down with the audience to listen to the contestants’ stories.
The first is Robert, a charter school consultant who explains that “the money follows the kid and it’s not overly regulated.” Helping people create charter schools, an idea at the heart of small business and capitalism, Robert’s last line sums up how charter schools work; they receive the public funding allocated to each child by the state for their public education, but are not the schools most people think of when talking about public schools. Charter schools are often run by public entities, are governed by different rules and regulations, but receive the public funding that follows a child to charter school and the public school loses that money when the child go.
From there, the show spins through its cast of contestants to explore facets of the problem within the upbeat framework of the talent competition. Kevin, a state official, points out that two-thirds of African American students in traditional public schools are not at the grade level. Melissa, founder of a charter school, touts the benefits of how her school can design its own curriculum, make students enjoy learning and, more importantly, how people find them “all through the grassroots.” – mainly Facebook ”. Octavia shares the efforts of trying to create “the kind of system designed to bring out the glow in your child” in a society where the public education system ignores, undermines and rejects students of color. We meet Mike, a public school teacher, who argues that what we need to fix public education is “money and political will”. Nicole, administrator of a charter school, argues that the effectiveness of their teaching methods that train students in passivity is good for their education. A sociology professor, Diane explains the legal history of desegregation and the role of charter schools and buses in these efforts to promote and / or derail various schools.
These are just a selection of the candidates and we meet more throughout the show as the scores to win the talent contest hover between the two teams. The final song, however, features a number of cast members as public school teachers singing their 23 mile march from Durham to Raleigh to demand better for public schools and their students. Upon their arrival after coordinating with the governor’s office to set up the meeting, they arrived to find the doors locked and the governor’s office did not want to talk to them about their concerns. Despite the struggles, they all agreed, “I’m not going to get away from this. “
Running around 90 minutes, the show tries to avoid discord in the tone, as it deals with the political and social elements of the debate. With his mix of kid jokes, talent routines, and catchy music, Lipton has found an open and light-hearted way to delve deeper into the very important issue of education in America. He distilled the interviews into songs that refine all facets of the question with the advantage of an incredible cast to bring them to life for this workshop.
The contestants were played by a talented cast including John Ellison Conlee (Nap, Boardwalk Empire), Nina Hellman (Great Clement), Jahi Kearse (Is not too proud, Holler if you hear me), Piper Patterson, Mike Shapiro, Nidra Under The Earth (Book of Mormon, Room of Marvin), Allie Vazquez, and Justise Hayward under the direction of Jade King Carroll and the musical direction of Jon Schneidman. The workshop also featured Benjamin Samuelson on guitar and staging by Hannah Woodward.
If you want to learn more about the series and the process behind it, read our resident playwright Phoebe Corde’s interview with Ethan Lipton here.
Extended Play is a project of The Civilians. To learn more about The Civilians and access exclusive show discounts, visit us and join our mailing list at TheCivilians.org.
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