An Interview by Alex Ates with Donald Lewis, Junior
Donald Lewis, Junior is a beloved actor, teacher, storyteller, and community icon in New Orleans. He is the head of the Talented in Theater program for the Recovery School District (RSD), the state-run emergency school district responsible for taking over failing public schools in New Orleans post-Katrina. Since then, the RSD has been delegating the operation of its New Orleans schools to independent charters and downsizing its New Orleans central office.
Donald was born in New Orleans, but has lived all across the country. Donald has taught in camps, artist residencies, conservatories, and schools in the New Orleans area. A written interview really doesn’t do him justice. He has a voice as big and round as the Superdome (it would make any television announcer jealous). He lives in the historic Treme neighborhood, wears science fiction tee-shirts, and in addition to being a fixture on local stages, you can hear him weekly on WWOZ, New Orleans’ community radio station. I’m also proud to say Donald was an actor in The NOLA Project’s second production ever, Get This Lake of My House.
He agreed to sit down with me at a coffee shop to discuss his experiences and perceptions of theater education in New Orleans schools.
Donald Lewis, Junior
Alex Ates: You’re the head of the Recovery School District’s (RSD) Talented Theater program. How long have you done that?
Donald Lewis, Junior: Oh, since ’07?
AA: When did you start teaching?
DL: I want to say 2001 at NOCCA (New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts). I didn’t know this at the time, I was making a transition between working actor to actor-teacher and then a teacher-actor. I first started doing summer camps, then storytelling, children’s theater, and then I was on the road for five years doing children’s theater. And then I came back to town and started working in after school programs and very specialized residencies where you may be in a school for like eight weeks or three weeks and I did two or three of those a year. And then, I got full time employment.
AA: You made a distinction between working actor, actor-teacher, and teacher-actor. Could you define those?
DL: It’s really the volume of where your money comes from. For five years, it was mostly acting, doing theater especially when I was on the road; I was hired by a company and we would do African-American storytelling, basically, African-American history and folktales. We did it around the country—literally. So it’s possible to make a living as an actor.
AA: When do you think you made a transition to being a teacher-actor?
DL: It was gradual. Definitely at NOCCA.
AA: You taught me at NOCCA for, like, two weeks, before Katrina.
DL: I did!
AA: Now, at this point in time, what occupies most of your brain space? Do you think about education or are you still thinking more about theater and acting? Or is it a mix?
DL: Lately, I’ve been making a transition in my mind to being an artist who happens to teach. So it’s a philosophical shift of: I’m still an artist and I’m teaching the art form, which is still artistry. It’s more endearment and respect for myself and both positions, so I’m still an artist doing ‘the thing’. Because I know some teachers who are not theater artists who are teaching the art form of theater. Which is a little disturbing to me. There’s an intense lack of respect for the art form of theater. A musician, you can’t fake that, but with theater, some people can navigate (teaching) and they haven’t really done it.
AA: It’s hard to define how to teach theater and how to do it well. It’s still something that boggles my mind.
DL: You have to look at what you like. Whatever your strengths are, you should teach. It’s a misunderstanding, the old phrase, ‘you teach best what you most need to learn.’ How could you teach something you need to learn?
AA: In the RSD, can you describe what your position is? Is it mainly administrative, do you oversee other teachers? Do you hop around between different schools? What is the nature of your job now?
DL: Well, I’m the head of the theater part of the Gifted and Talented Department of the RSD. It’s basically me and Sherri Marina and we are the department. So I do my part and Sherri does hers. And that really kind of is it. We’re both itinerate so we might be doing the same thing in a different facility, though, it’ll be slightly different each time because of 1) the facility itself 2) the administration and the teachers, and 3) the students who attend that school.
AA: Can you describe the origin of the RSD in New Orleans and what it is now? It’s my understanding that after Katrina, the State Legislature allowed the RSD to take over failing public schools in the city with the intent of eventually handing those schools over to the Orleans Parish School Board or the community, by way of creating a charter which is approved by the State.
DL: After Katrina, it was supposed to create charter schools with or give them back to Orleans Parish, well the Orleans Parish part, that agenda disintegrated, I’m not sure why. I think some corporations, some in town, some out of town, realized the enormous amount of money that was available for teaching here and created charters or have charter management organizations that took schools over.
AA: How many schools do you work at and what’s the age range?
DL: Initially it was K-12, because I was the only theater teacher for the RSD.
AA: And how may schools does the RSD have?
DL: Well, it’s chartering everything out now. There won’t be any. I was working at three. Now, I’m at two: Benjamin Banneker is K-8 and New Beginnings is K-12. New Beginnings is interested in identifying gifted and talented children.
AA: On a regular school day, what does your schedule look like?
DL: It depends on the day. Because Banneker had the largest population, I’d be there on, say, a Tuesday and I’d be there all day with first graders through eighth graders. And other days I’m at a school for two hours because I’m dealing with third through sixth grade. With special education, you should only have three grades at a time. So at a charter like New Beginnings, they wanted second grade through fifth and I had to divide them into two different classes because, obviously, that’s too big a spread.
AA: The developmental stages are so different for those age ranges.
DL: Absolutely. In one class, I’m working with Dr. Seuss and then in the other, I could be dealing with Shakespeare.
AA: From what I’ve been able to assess from working in public schools in New Orleans and speaking with other theater teachers, it seems like our work and the resources we’re given are so overshadowed by the drive for greater test scores. Is there an inhibitor keeping charter schools from investing in the arts? Are they not focussed on this at all or have they simply not been getting the right message?
DL: There is a lot of money in the assessment process.
AA: Do you mean testing?
DL: Yeah, I think about everything necessary for assessing. You have to have a pre-test, pre-program, pre-curriculum and a lot of times it’s done on paper, so you have to have bindings. Then you have to have the actual test, which is more documents. Then you have to have someone assess the assessment. Then after that, you have to have someone who will recreate the program based on their scores—good or bad—from the assessment. This person, or team, come to your town. They get a salary, they get per diem, they get travel for their car, they get a hotel, they get their flight (because usually they’re not coming from Baton Rouge!) So all of those fees are just to bring them to town. Now they don’t come once, if they’re doing their job they could come up to four times a year! And that’s one year for each individual school, not one school district. Each. Individual. School. And they’re making a lot of money! So the triangle has become inverted. Instead of the money trickling down to the people, the smallest point is the one that gets to the kid.
Unfortunately, these tests do not include a lot of indigenous culture. I see generic world history, but when you have a city—a state—that’s so diverse in culture—I mean in this state we created gumbo! When I say this dish is 400 years old based on Native American sassafras, African okra, and German and French spices—it all came together because the people were here! When I say that’s a cultural phenomenon manifested in a dish, and it comes from here, that, to me, is an exciting concept!
AA: Why is that important to students?
DL: To me, it’s important because of self-esteem! The assessment process is not necessarily designed for self-esteem.
AA: Do you think theater education in this city should be designed—in part—for self-esteem in culture?
DL: I do. I do. Some of it. When you have jazz walking around, why would you not put that into education? Some people might think I’m anti-charter. That’s not true. I’m pro-great teaching!
I’ll give you an analogy. After Katrina, we got a lot of help. Some of that help stayed. Some of that help came knocking on the door, “Hey, how’s it going? We’re gonna come over here and help you out and we’re going to stay here and we’re going to tell you how to do you and assess that process and you are going to pay us to do that, and, based on your score on our assessment of you, it will determine how well you keep doing.” At Katrina, the schools were already behind and so the powers that be took advantage of that situation. In some ways—on paper—a lot of the scores are higher. The downside of that is there are a lot of students who are disenfranchised.
AA: What are the benefits of having a theater program in a New Orleans school?
DL: Getting children to express themselves clearly, teaching the art form, the social implications, looking at the symbology of it—these are formulas for life and it’s important for you to understand! You can use your intuition, your intelligence, your hutzpah to overcome a situation if you think creatively! It’s not just expression, it’s actual life lessons! The other side is huge self-esteem. We’ve come to praise data. When I say this child is feeling better about his or herself because they just had a lead in a play, that’s not quantifiable!
Donald Lewis, Jr. is the head of the Talented Theater Department of the Recovery School district of New Orleans. He is a graduate of the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts and also taught there. He attended University of New Orleans and College of Santa Fe, NM. He received the lifetime achievement award from the Alliance for Community Theaters. He is a member of the Chakula Cha-Jua Theater Co. He is the stage manager of the Kids Tent of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. He volunteers for WWOZ radio station and is on the board of WRBH radio station. He was invited to Sundance Institute for the Film, “Heaven Before I Die.” He also was in the New Orleans Premiere of, Fragments written and directed by Edward Albee.
Alex Ates is a New Orleans native. He comes from a family of Orleans Parish Public School teachers and administrators. He is a company member with The NOLA Project, where he directs and acts. Next season, he will be the Interim Education Director. He is the Producer and Director of The Shakespearean Jazz Show and Chasing Ballerinas. This past year, he worked at Morris Jeff Community School in New Orleans. Next year, he will be on the theater faculty at Lusher Charter School. Alex graduated from Emerson College in 2013.
This article is a part of The NOLA Project blog’s Theater and Education in New Orleans series.