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No Child

Nilaja Sun's solo show about New York City public schools is a lesson in brilliant acting. logo
Nilaja Sun in No Child
(Photo © Dixie Sheridan)
You've seen the story many times before: A young, idealistic teacher comes into a school room populated by the worst delinquents imaginable. Though almost defeated, the teacher ultimately inspires his or her students to achieve something meaningful that changes their lives forever.

This hackneyed plot was barely fresh when Sidney Poitier starred in To Sir, With Love almost 40 years ago, and not much has really changed in the intervening decades except that the delinquents are far more dispossessed, angry, and alienated than ever before. Today, they seem virtually unreachable.

Enter Nilaja Sun. Her one-person show No Child, based on her own experience as a "teaching artist" in the New York City school system, proves that's not the case. In this whirlwind, hour-long piece, tightly directed by Hal Brooks (Thom Pain), Sun offers a lot of good writing and even more great acting. Indeed, her brilliant performance more than makes up for the occasional lapses in her script.

On a spare but effective set designed by Narelle Sissons, Sun portrays an amazing array of characters, from an elderly school custodian to an overwhelmed Asian-American teacher to a beleaguered Latina mother -- not to mention an entire classroom of Bronx 10th graders who are considered the worst kids in the entire system. The show is both seamless and sensational, because the characters that Sun creates are immediately identifiable and they communicate as much with their silences as they do with their dialogue.

Sun's task as a teaching artist is to introduce her students to Timberlake Wertenbaker's Our Country's Good, about Australian prisoners in the 17th Century who put on a play, and to have them put on the show themselves within six weeks. In a clever bit of story construction, Sun creates a narrator who tells a story in which Sun is the heroine -- so what we've got here is not just a play within a play within a play but also a story within a story within a story.

This construct creates a distance that keeps Sun from seeming too self-aggrandizing. Near the very end of the play, however, she drops the pretense and the story becomes unabashedly self-told. That's an unfortunate miscalculation, and so is the play's false ending. Though the scenes following the part of the show that the audience believes is the ending genuinely deepen our understanding of the kids who put on the play, they still feel tacked on.

Nevertheless, Sun has created for herself an acting vehicle that is monumental. In fact, she's the first performer we have seen whom we would favorably compare to John Leguizamo; that's how gifted, fierce, and astonishing she is.

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