Amber Sainsbury was a British actor working on an American TV show in South Africa back in 2004 when she decided to rent a pickup truck and drive through South Africa, exploring the country she had never been exposed to ten years post apartheid.
“I stopped at a farm there, and the teacher was clearly in the late stage of HIV/AIDS, full-blown AIDS, and she was struggling to teach a class of 30 tiny kids,” says Sainsbury. “I said, ‘Well, look, I have no teaching experience. All I can do is drama games, but maybe I can help.’
“The response from these kids in being given engaged play and getting the chance to express what they were experiencing was actually incredibly poignant and important in terms of their lives,” she continues. “It was an opportunity to have what we take for granted, which is access to some form of creativity or some form of self-expression that isn’t rote learning—which is what they had.”
In 2009, Sainsbury founded Dramatic Need, an organization that began as a volunteer program to host art workshops, but became a conduit for building art centers in South Africa and Rwanda to create infrastructure for arts education while providing teaching, training, and art-making equipment. “It’s in Article 13 of the UN Rights for the Child: They should have the right to make and express themselves through art,” says Sainsbury. “Whether it’s listening to your iPod or watching TV or flipping through a comic book, that constant engagement in what other people are creating is something we take for granted, and these kids didn’t have it.” To date Dramatic Needs has served over 5,000 school-age children.
Of course, Sainsbury doesn’t claim to introduce the arts to Africa. “It was more the fact that these kids who are in a very rural environment weren’t getting the exposure to any homegrown art or anything new,” she says. “We give these kids somewhere to put their rage and their hurt and their abandonment and their frustrations.”
But an initiative like Dramatic Need requires funding, and Sainsbury put her dramatic training to use to envision a singular event to communicate the power of her organization’s work. She created The Children’s Monologues.
Drawing from over 1,000 essay submissions written by children in South Africa about “a day they’ll never forget,” Sainsbury narrowed down the pile and asked preeminent playwrights such as two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage and four-time Tony winner Tom Stoppard to craft monologues based on the accounts of both traumatic and euphoric experiences. Then, world-renowned acting talents—from theatre’s Audra McDonald and Javier Muñoz to film’s Charlize Theron and Susan Sarandon—bring the monologues to life onstage in a one-night-only performance November 13 at Carnegie Hall. Directed by Oscar winner Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire), the readings also integrate music by famous artists such as Grammy winner Esparanza Spaulding.
But more than a star-studded affair, the evening promises to excel at theatre’s ability to affect change. “When an actor gets up onstage and really emotes and really puts across something that is too abstract to read in a newspaper article, that moves you to tears, that is a demonstration of why the work we do on the ground really has impact,” says Sainsbury.
Which is why actors like McDonald and Muñoz signed on. “In bringing a true story and a true moment in these children’s lives on the stage in a visceral live way, this is a way to really capture a moment in time, in space, and bring drama to it that maybe in some way will make it feel more real and will spark something in them to sit up and say, ‘Wow. This stuff does happen. I need to do more,’” says six-time Tony winner McDonald.
In a world where word of tragic stories and need can get lost, The Children’s Monologues leads with emotion.
More than that, the event promotes global connectivity. On the same day that Carnegie Hall hosts its performance, the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, South Africa, will also host a cast of African women reading the monologues, and the children who submitted testimony also perform the work in their local townships. “[The fact] that there’s a simultaneous global performance happening, the artist in me and the romantic in me finds that really moving and poignant,” says Muñoz, who will be reading a piece written by Nottage.
What drew both of these actors to the cause was the opportunity to give voice to children. “Not that I wasn’t really dedicated to the needs of children before,” says McDonald, a mother to a one-year-old and a teenager, “but I’m especially awash with the emotion of how delicate and precious a vulnerable child is.”
“Whatever age you are [as an adult], you’re in a position to be heard in a way and respected in a way, acknowledged in a way that a child would be completely overlooked,” says Muñoz. “The attention that we, as adults, can bring to this cause and to these children is going to ripple out into funding for other projects. For other organizations, for the towns that they live in, for other resources they may need, and that’s what moments like these are about. It’s not just about the performance, it’s about ‘Watch this pebble drop, and how is it going to ripple out and affect in a greater way?’”
For tickets to The Children’s Monologues, click here.
Watch Lynn Nottage and her fellow 2017 Tony nominees for Best Play talk about their writing process and more: