by Byron Woods
To be truthful, I haven’t taught drama in a “worst of the worst” New York City classroom like playwright and performer Nilaja Sun, whose semi-autobiographical one-person show, NO CHILD… closes at PlayMakers Rep on Jan. 15. I taught high school drama in an economically and culturally impoverished North Carolina county during half of the last decade instead. It was the hardest—and most rewarding—job I have ever undertaken. And on the basis of the experience, I can say this much: Ms. Sun clearly knows whereof she speaks.
NO CHILD…is reportedly based on her years of experience as a teaching artist in New York public schools. The news is that it’s not a world apart from the challenged classrooms I saw in the rural South. Both reflect a popular culture supersaturated with sexuality, violence and speed. And if either had once cornered the market on ADHD, emotional, sexual and physical abuse or attitude, ignorance and pride, neither does now.
Yes, the quest Sun’s character faces during a short-term (and short-sighted) state grant—staging the Australian penal drama Our Country’s Good with a group of at-risk high schoolers who are theatrical beginners, in six weeks—is certainly quixotic. But it’s hardly unfamiliar in North Carolina, where a public education in the arts mandated by the state’s master Basic Education Plan still hasn’t yet been fully implemented, much less evenly distributed, across urban and rural systems—some 27 years after its ratification in 1985.
A new legislative commission tasked with finally closing that deal this Spring would give some cause for hope—had the Republican-led legislature it will ultimately report to not slashed millions of dollars from education last year and then declared open political warfare on the teachers who dared oppose them. In the meantime, the sort of inconsistent, “drive-by” arts education on display here remains hauntingly familiar, to say the least. If one of Sun’s central points in NO CHILD…concerns the wholesale abandonment of children by their families, society and the state, it bears noting that the troubled kids of New York aren’t the only ones who have suffered—and still suffer—this on a number of fronts, including public education and the arts.
Those who’ve savored playwright and actor Mike Wiley’s amazing multi-character one-person shows will find familiar ground here—for good and ill, as it turns. Sun has a similarly eerie ability to disappear into a large cast of vivid characters: An avuncular old janitor who’s seen them come and go, an ever-cringing English teacher uniquely unsuited to inner-city youth, and a number of her charges, including the attitudinal girl, the pseudo-suave 10th-grader trying to mack on the visiting artist—and that obese, asthmatic kid in the back whose condition isn’t helped by his regular morning diet of Welch’s Orange and Little Debbie snack cakes.
Still, as Wiley learned in his adaptation of Blood Done Sign My Name, the more characters a single actor juggles on stage, the greater the chances are for confusion. To a degree, it works in Sun’s favor when the needy and abrasive voices in a chaotic classroom become a bewildering blur. But elsewhere as the evening continues, characters like the feisty narrator, Janitor Baron, noticeably lose some of the painstaking delineation Sun devotes to their initial appearances.
Most of the show’s transitions still retain their sharpness, including a memorable moment in which the students split a reading of a single line from their play-within-a-play: "Human beings have an intelligence that has nothing to do with the circumstances into which they were born." But if it’s been a while since director Hal Brooks last looked in on this touring production, now would be a good time to revisit the work.
Several pointed theater education digs stud the text. There’s the automatic assumption that a drama teacher working with minority students is staging A Raisin in the Sun, and when the director sees a student actor show up for a performance just after the death of his brother, her first response is a gleeful “You made it!!!”—immediately followed by an abashed “I’m so sorry.” These follow the agonizing classroom sequence when the teacher, without too much condescension, tells a kid with a speech impediment and no emotional display to sit back down. An extended moment passes before a second thought persuades her not to give up on him.
Yes, Ms. Sun has clearly been there, and come back to tell the tale. Even though her script flirts with sentimentality in the narrator’s role, the veracity of her other experiences make NO CHILD… a gritty, compelling work.