No Child...: A Captive Audience
According to the high school janitor who narrates Nilaja Sun's completely absorbing and exceptionally performed solo play, No Child…, you can board the uptown number 6 train at 59th Street, get off eighteen minutes later, and you will have traveled from the highest income congressional district in the country to the lowest. The convivial sage doing his early morning sweep works in the latter of the two. He tells us he was the first black janitor at Robert Moses High School in the Bronx, back when it was a predominantly Italian neighborhood. Nowadays it's a black and Latino community where kids attend the re-named Malcolm X. High School.
The fellow telling us about the complex system of alarms, security guards, metal detectors and armed police required to keep a public school reasonably safe, as well as all other characters in the piece, is played by the author; a slim, rubber faced chameleon of an actress who can quickly dart from one completely detailed character to another without changing a stitch of clothing.
No Child… is technically a work of fiction, pieced together from Sun's eight years of experience as a "Teaching Artist", leading drama workshops for those students who are respectfully referred to as "academically and emotionally challenged youth" in some of the city's toughest schools. The laughs of recognition (yes, it's a very funny play) from the many school-aged audience members in attendance the evening I saw it told me she was scoring high grades for realism. My own eyes and ears told me this is easily one of the best offerings currently available in any New York theatre.
Playing herself, Sun is an actress behind on her rent who accepts a position offered by an ambitious school principal who has received a grant to finance a sophomore drama workshop taught once a week. The shy Chinese teacher she works with has grown accustomed to her students' taunts of "Pork fried rice! Vegetable fried rice!" in this environment where Dominicans are referred to as "dumb in a can" and a mixed race child might be called a "blackeno."
"Having gone to Catholic school for thirteen years, I didn't know I was black until college," quips Sun, who does her best to create an environment where hate speech, even in jest, will not be tolerated. Her mission is to have her students learn, discuss and give a performance of Timerlake Wertenbaker's 1988 drama, Our Country's Good, ("Yo, Justin Timberlake done wrote himself a play!") where a British lieutenant leads a group of convicts sent to colonize Australia in a production of George Farquhar's 1706 comedy The Recruiting Officer in an attempt to build a community out of those who have been ousted from society. Sun sees the dehumanizing effects of a childhood barely different from prison and tries to instill self-esteem into her charges by treating them with respect, expecting respect in return, and challenging them to achieve more than anyone has ever expected from them. There's no storybook ending to the tale, but there is realistic optimism.
Under Hal Brooks' direction, there's a remarkable completeness to each of Sun's characterizations, especially when you consider how many times she snaps from one to another to another within seconds. The sassy drama queen, the arrogant player, the shy child with a speech impediment and the indifferent security guard, among others, are all vivid creations. But the virtuosity of her performance never overwhelms the play. This is always, first and foremost, a play about what is happening now in many of our schools. It's not a show about Sun's ability to play different characters.
Narelle Sissons provides an appropriately dreary classroom set with chipping industrial green paint and exposed pipes. Not an environment that inspires learning.
The title, No Child…, certainly suggests a jab at President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, which opponents say penalizes schools in low-income districts which cannot meet certain standards of accountability, but this is not a political play. Sun is simply documenting what she saw and honoring those who take on "the most underpaid job in this crazy universe." And in doing so she educates us not only in what happens behind those guarded doors that contain our youth five days a week, but in how much heartbreak, humor, warmth and hope can be packed into seventy minutes of exceptional theatre.
Photos of Nilaja Sun by Carol Rosegg