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Chicago. The Great Teachers Strike

Dave Rogers in collaboration with the company
Banner Theatre Company
Blackheath and Newbridge Working Men's Club

Banner Theatre Company Credit: Alejando 'Alex' Quihon with design by Stuart Melvin
Alexia McIntosh Credit: Colin Walker
Vince Pryce,Alexia McIntosh, Dave Rogers and Fred Wisdom Credit: Kevin Hayes Report Digital

Hardly a week goes by without a politician commenting on education and recommending some policy. There is less said about the impact of some of these policies on communities.

Banner Theatre Company’s latest touring production Chicago. The Great Teachers Strike directed by Stuart Brown focuses on this impact. It is a fine, thought-provoking piece of documentary theatre, mixing storytelling, filmed interviews, dramatic scenes and passionate songs to tell the story of the impact of business-orientated educational policies on schools generally and the way that communities in Chicago responded.

The strong, rich voice of Alexia McIntosh narrates the story linking its different elements. She begins with the birth in the 1980s of a ‘GERM’ which she tells us refers to a set of ideas called the Global Education 'Reform' Movement

The key ideas of this movement which are encouraged by the World Bank and many businesses are to promote a process of marketisation of education through competition between schools and between teachers along with test-based assessments and performance-related rewards.

Banner spent time in Chicago video interviewing teachers on the receiving end of these policies. In one clip, Al Ramirez of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) describes parents complaining that testing was upsetting their children. He comments that, "trying to educate a child by testing them is like trying to fatten a pig by weighing them."

Mathew Luskin of the CTU explains that it wasn’t just the children who were suffering. He claims that teachers' pensions, wages and jobs were at stake as the schools were being pushed to run themselves like small businesses.

GERM is held to be responsible for a wave of school closures including the threatened closure of the Chicago Social Justice High School, or SoJo, which was located in a poor district of Chicago and took a high number of Mexican and African American children. It is the events around this school which are the heart of the show.

The school had a remarkable history, only being built after parents went on a nineteen-day hunger strike in 2001. The successful struggle of this school to stay open helps to feed the growing unrest and confidence of Chicago teachers.

Music is an important element of Banner shows and in this production they choose passionate songs in styles ranging from Latino to reggae written by the company and reflecting the ethnic mix of the city. One of the strongest which accompanies the story of SoJo is a bluesy song written by company member Fred Wisdom and sung by Alexia McIntosh whose agile vocal weight gives it an especially moving quality.

Dominating the screen during the final section of the show is the image of a young woman who has smeared red face paint over her mouth. She is one of the thousands of striking teachers who donned red shirts to identify themselves with the strike. According to a news clip, there were some 29,000 teachers who stood on picket lines. After nine days of action and despite huge opposition from the political establishment, they won almost all their demands on pay and conditions.

The final sequence of the show reminds us that the GERM was being fought across the world from Hope School in Brighton to schools in Greece. Banner Theatre has given entertaining witness to one of the most exciting responses to these policies.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna