That the parlous state of public education remains a subject ever-fresh is attested to by Nilaja Sun’s spunky, funky one-woman show, No Child. Now onstage, directed by Hal Brooks, in PlayMakers' PRC2 series at the UNC Center for Dramatic Art, No Child was inspired by Sun’s own blistering experiences as a teaching artist in the New York City public schools. With her vivid characterizations, we enter — through the metal detector — Malcolm X High School in the Bronx.
Sun’s character, Miss Sun, is there for a six-week project, to teach the kids how to read and analyze a play, and then put it onstage. Before she gets there, we’ve heard her negotiating her back rent with her landlord (the IRS has frozen her bank account), so we know she’s not coming from a plush life. Yet even she is taken aback and nearly defeated by the multiplicitous problems of the nearly feral, nearly grown children of this 10th grade class—kids who no one has encouraged, who no one has stuck around for or stuck up for, kids who know they are simply in the waiting room for failure and probably prison.
Older viewers will immediately recall two 1967 films (both adapted from novels) that thrust the problems of inner-city schools and their idealistic teachers into wider consciousness, Up the Down Staircase and To Sir, With Love. Miss Sun’s storyline is similar to those of Sandy Dennis’ and Sidney Poitier’s characters in those films, but Sun gives it to us in a more trenchant form as she morphs from herself to the ancient janitor (great use of the omniscient narrator to frame the story) to the kids, to the various teachers, the principal and security guard and back with incredible speed.
Sun’s physical acting is astounding. With nothing more than her voice, expression and posture, a broom and three chairs, she manifests all the characters, slipping from one to the next in the space of a breath. She seems to fill the stage with the raucous class as they banter and defy authority. One speaks, another answers, a third interrupts — and there is no question about which is who.
The play is very cleverly constructed to make its points without falling into pedagogy itself. Based on close observation and a devastating talent for mimicry, it is full of anger and humor and pathos and resignation and even…hope. Miss Sun, with her artistic ideals, cannot change the school or the economic misery in which is functions, but sometimes she can save one child from the maw of failure. Highly recommended.
No Child continues through Jan. 15. See the sidebar for more information.