Treehouse Troupe takes “New Kid” on the road to share lessons about tolerance

From left, Shannan Bingham, Autumn Chisolm, and Harmon Andrews perform in "New Kid."

By DAVID DUPONT

BG Independent News

Bullying is an international language.

That’s a lesson Nic learns on her first day in an American school. She had moved with her family to the United States from Homeland, not speaking English, and now she must adjust to life among strangers.

That’s the plot of “New Kid,” a play by Dennis Foon being staged in schools around the region by Bowling Green State University’s Treehouse Troupe.

Recently the troupe staged “New Kid” in the atrium of the Wood County Public Library for home-schooled students and students from St. Aloysius.

Nic (Shannan Bingham) and her mother (Kristyn Curnow) discuss Nic’s first day in American school.

We meet Nic played by Shannan Bingham and her mother played by Kristyn Curnow as they discuss leaving their country Homeland. The backdrop is colorful and their costumes are an iridescent green. Though they say they don’t know English, their lines come out as English, and the audience knows what they are saying. Soon Nic is in her new school, shyly joining two other students, Mencha (Autumn Chisholm) and Mug (Harmon Andrews) at recess.

Before she comes out the audience gets to listen in on Mencha and Mug’s conversation. Not that it will do them any good. They’re animated as they chat but the words frustrate comprehension. Clearly it’s a language, just not one we understand. Nor as it turns out any other language. The actors’ body gestures, make it clear that they are negotiating some sort of exchange.

The language was made up by the playwright to give youngsters a sense of what it’s like to be in a place where you can’t understand what anyone else is saying.

Nic has a rough time. Mug starts by teasing and then taunts her, even breaking the bowl her friends back in Homeland gave her as a going away present. She learns one word “Groc,” an ethnic slur. She flees school.

Nic returns to school the next day intent of staying away from the others. But Mencha proves to be a good hearted sort who befriends her and helps her deal with Mug’s bullying.

Emily Aguilar, who directs the troupe, said she was attracted to the script because it tackles the subject of bullying specifically as it relates to immigration in a way that appeals to a wide age range of students. The play has been staged for students from kindergarten to grade 8.

Dealing with xenophobia is important “especially today in our current climate,” she said.

Younger and older students react to the play in their own ways. The youngest enjoy the comedy, while the older enjoy the drama and the relationships among the characters.

One element they all seem interested in is where’s Nic’s father? He doesn’t appear in the play. Instead we’re told he works all the time. And though he was a teacher back in Homeland, here he works in another job.

Andrews said he imagines him as a factory worker, maybe in a plant owned by Mug’s father.

The play leaves much to the imagination of both cast and audience.

Following the library performance the children had lots of questions.

Why did Nic’s family leave Homeland? The cast thinks maybe they were in danger.

They wanted to know about the Homeland costumes designed by Katie Grzymkowski. She designed them and they were sewn by the costume shop on campus.

Another asked: Is the sky orange in Homeland?

“Your imagination surprises us,” Aguilar said.

“You’ve given us a lot to think about,” Children’s Librarian Maria Simon told them as the question-and-answer session ended.

At other shows, Aguilar said kids really wanted to know what “Groc” meant beyond being a generic slur.

The cast, which also includes stage manager Kailee McAfee and stage hand and understudy Talisa Lemke, has found the young audience particularly demanding, Aguilar said. “The young audiences are very honest. If something’s funny they’ll laugh.  If you’re not entertaining them, they’ll talk or sleep. They’re not interested in entertaining you.”

The play is offered through the fall. In spring, Aguilar said, schools are too busy with testing.

Those interested in booking “New Kid” can contact Aguilar at: emilyat@bgsu.edu.

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