F&M Stories

Nilaja Sun Gordon '96: Doctor of Arts

Presented at the 2016 Commencement of Franklin & Marshall College:

Nilaja Sun Gordon is an actress and playwright who has used her singular talent to express her humanity, to bring people together, and to raise awareness of critical social issues.

Ms. Gordon, who holds a degree in Theatre, Dance and Film from Franklin & Marshall, is the author of the Obie Award-winning, one-woman performance "No Child…," which had its initial off-Broadway run at the Barrow Street Theatre from July 2006 to June 2007. The work is an exploration of the New York City public school system and the issues confronted daily by students, from sex, race, and violence, to language, self-esteem, and community, among others. It is also a spotlight on great teachers and their ability to inspire, motivate and transform students through the clash and clamor of the classroom.

The 16 characters at the heart of Ms. Gordon's fictional performance are based on the many types of people she met while spending a decade as a teaching artist, fostering civic engagement through the theatrical arts. Set in Malcolm X High School, a ramshackle public institution more evocative of a prison than a school, Ms. Gordon masterfully moves between roles: the neophyte English teacher; the wry, yet still-hopeful janitor; and a retinue of raucous, cynical 10th-graders.

The English instructor has a plan: teach her students how to act, then direct them in a play to be performed in front of relatives and friends.

New York Times theater reviewer Anita Gates wrote that Ms. Gordon's play "makes a strong, heartening case for the transformative power of theater." And in 2008, The Washington Post called Ms. Gordon's energetic performance "remarkable, often riotously funny," and praised her for confronting a contentious subject with grace and humor.

Yet at its heart, "No Child…" is a story about the inherent power of dedicated, passionate educators and the change they can affect through sheer force of will—even when the system in which they work seeks to stymie them at every turn.

For her creation and performance of "No Child…" and its subsequent national tour, Ms. Gordon garnered 21 awards, including an Obie, a Lucille Lortel Award, two Outer Critics Circle Awards, a Theatre World Award, the Helen Hayes Award, and two NAACP Theatre Awards. Her remarkable work has been licensed to 45 theatres since 2008.

In 2015, Ms. Gordon opened a new solo show, "Pike St.," in which she portrays three generations of a Puerto Rican family, plus a small circle of friends and neighbors. Her work once again centers on important social themes: parenthood, poverty and institutional racism. Throughout the performance, a New York Times critic wrote, Ms. Gordon "brings each [character] to life with a radiant grace that makes her virtuosity seem as natural as breathing."

Nilaja Sun Gordon, for your distinctive theatrical talent, your spirited dedication to teaching, and for your exceptionally creative method of effecting social change, Franklin & Marshall College bestows upon you the Honorary Degree, Doctor of Arts.

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