Community play highlights education issues

Amie Ninh

Amie Ninh/The Daily Northwestern

A special education teacher struggles to get her students’ voices heard. A Latino mother, who doesn’t speak much English, works a steady job in order to support her children. An over-achieving student copes with the daily challenges of adolescence that extend beyond the classroom.

These characters are exploring the educational issues Evanston residents need to know.

This weekend, community members partnered with local theater company Next Theatre in the original play “What You Need to Know,” aimed at addressing concerns about the school system.

The annual play, now in its fourth year, was shown over the course of three consecutive days starting Thursday at various locations in Evanston, including Evanston Township High School and the theater’s home base at Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes St.

“There’s a lot going on in the Evanston school districts,” said Julie Ganey, play director and outreach director at Next. “There’s such pressure about improving student achievement, and both are looking to do that most effectively.”

The play came out of discussions of city educational concerns by a group of community members assembled by Ganey. The ensemble included students, teachers, parents, administrators and representatives from various organizations.

After the discussions, playwright Marsha Estell wrote the original piece to encompass these viewpoints and assigned roles in the play to the members of the discussion panel.

The play’s overarching question dealt with the best way to educate an “extremely diverse community” in terms of socioeconomic, cultural, ethnic and racial differences, Ganey said.

“What’s important about this production is not that we do a fancy, slick production,” she said. “What’s different is that we’re trying to raise issues and make sure that a lot of voices are heard so that afterward people feel they can actually talk about them.”

Issues addressed in the play included social services, mixed-level classes, parental responsibility, race relations and the student achievement gap.

Cast member Sara Pitt said she learned a lot about the education system through working on the project.

“The biggest thing I learned was to really think about what you say before you say it, because it’s really easy to offend someone,” the ETHS senior said. “It’s dangerous to generalize about certain people, which is something we try to get across in the show.”

The play ran approximately 40 minutes, and audience members were invited to join the post-show discussion about the issues raised.

This holds true to the community-based approach Next Theatre embraces, Ganey said.

The theater company was founded in 1981 and strives to produce “socially provocative and engaging work” about social issues, she said.

“We always go out into the community and get input from community members and leaders and local politicians about what we should look at,” Ganey said.

Social worker Sheila Merry said it’s important for a community to examine its flaws.

“That’s something I really value about Evanston,” she said after watching the play.

Pitt said though the play may be an exaggeration of the truth, no character is portrayed badly.

“It has so many ideas and so many perspectives on the same situation,” Pitt said. “It’s the most effective thing about the play to me, and it’s just so unbelievable to me how complete it feels.”

Ganey said the point of the play is to show many different perspectives.

“We’re not trying to prescribe what we think people should do,” she said. “We are trying to elucidate what it might be like to walk in somebody else’s shoes.”

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