Money follows the child: Ethan Lipton’s ‘Talent Show’ takes on America’s education

Money follows the child.” Playing the role of Robert, John Ellison Conlee sang this line which is at the heart of Ethan Lipton’s new musical talent show. Last week, The Civilians presented a workshop of Lipton’s new work, the culmination of years on this project that began with The Civilians’ residency at Duke University in North Carolina. While there, Lipton and The Civilians set out to explore the debate over charter schools and their impact on public education. They conducted research and interviews with teachers, administrators, policymakers, school counselors, parents, and more. talent show brings those voices and perspectives to life in a good old classic of school competitions: the talent show.

Pitted against each other in song with various special talents also thrown into the performance mix, each character competed for public schools or charter schools as they explained the problems to be solved and their experiences. First we meet the talent show judges: Alvin, played by Bryan Holden Chan (The Lion King), and Gladys, played by Tatum Hall who is best known for her work in films The night is coming and Wu-Tang: an American saga. Hall has also played Gladys in previous workshops of talent show. Taking turns delivering information and pun-filled jokes, Gladys and Alvin set the show’s lighthearted and rather upbeat tone before sitting down with the audience to listen to the contestants’ stories.

The first is Robert, a charter school consultant who explains that “the money follows the child and it’s not overly regulated.” Helping people create charter schools, an idea at the heart of small business and capitalism, Robert’s last line sums up how charter schools work; they receive the public funding that is given to each child by the state for their public education, but they are not the schools that most people think of when they talk about public schools. Charter schools are often run by public entities, are governed by different rules and regulations, but receive this public funding that follows a child to the charter school and the public school loses that money when the child leaves.

From there, the show spins through its cast of contestants to explore facets of the issue within the hopeful framing of the talent contest. Kevin, a state representative, points out that two-thirds of African-American students in traditional public schools are not at the grade level. Melissa, founder of a charter school, touts the benefits of how her school can design its own curriculum, make students love learning, and most importantly for her, how people find them “entirely grassroots – mainly Facebook”. Octavia shares the struggles of trying to create “the kind of system designed to bring out your child’s brilliance” in a society where the public education system ignores, undermines and rejects students of color. We meet Mike, a public school teacher, who argues that what we need to fix public education is “money and political will.” Nicole, a charter school administrator, argues that the effectiveness of their teaching methods that train students into passivity is good for their education. A sociology professor, Diane explains the legal history of desegregation and the role of charter schools and buses in these efforts to promote and/or derail various schools.

These are just a selection of the contestants and we meet more throughout the show as the scores to win the talent show swing between the two teams. The final song, however, features a number of actors as public school teachers singing their 23-mile march from Durham to Raleigh to demand better for public schools and their students. Upon arrival after coordinating with the governor’s office to arrange the meeting, they arrived to find the doors locked and the governor’s office would not speak to them about their concerns. Despite the struggles, they all agreed “I’m not going to go away.”

Running for around 90 minutes, the show strives to keep the tone from delving into divisiveness as it manages the political and social elements of the debate. With its mix of kiddie jokes, talent routines and upbeat music, Lipton has found an open and lighthearted way to delve into the all-important issue of education in the United States. He distilled the interviews into songs that honed every facet of the issue with the added benefit of an incredible cast to bring them to life for this workshop.

The contestants were played by a talented cast including John Ellison Conlee (Nap, Boardwalk Empire), Nina Hellman (Big Clement), Jahi Kearse (Ain’t too proud, Holler if you hear me), Piper Patterson, Mike Shapiro, Nidra Under The Earth (Book of Mormon, Marvin’s bedroom), Allie Vazquez and Justise Hayward under the direction of Jade King Carroll and the musical direction of Jon Schneidman. The workshop also featured Benjamin Samuelson on guitar and stage management by Hannah Woodward.

If you want to learn more about the show and the process behind it, read our Resident Playwright Phoebe Corde’s interview with Ethan Lipton here.

Extended Play is a project of The Civilians. To learn more about The Civilians and access exclusive discounts on shows, visit us and join our mailing list at

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