Every kid deserves a teacher like Nilaja Sun. As a teaching artist in New York City’s toughest public schools, Sun conducts dramatic workshops to reach students who have such severe social and learning disabilities as to be virtually unteachable. It’s enough to make the angels weep to watch this caring, committed performance artist re-create her experiences at notoriously bad-news schools like Manhattan’s Martin Luther King Jr. High School and Malcolm X Vocational High School in the Bronx, where “No Child” is set. Theatrically riveting solo piece is well positioned on Theater Row in this clean-lined production, helmed by Hal Brooks for Epic Theater, while the raw material suggests itself for development in another medium, such as film or television.
The latrine look of Narelle Sissons’ classroom set establishes the soulless environment of the rundown high school where Sun (playing herself) shows up to engage her rowdy 10th-grade delinquents in a six-week theater workshop funded by the Dept. of Education.
“Our Country’s Good,” Timberlake Wertenbaker’s powerful drama about the wretched inmates who put on an 18th-century play in their Australian prison, proves an inspired choice for the 37 disaffected black and Hispanic students warehoused in this Bronx classroom.
“They’ve got the world telling them they are going to end up in jail,” says Sun, painfully aware that 79% of the kids in her class have been physically, emotionally and sexually abused by age 16.
Before the teacher can bring up the issues of self-respect and empowerment that Wertenbaker’s play raises, she has to get these wild students under control. “Miss, you should be scared of this class, ’cause we supposed to be the worst class in the school,” Jose, the class smart-ass, taunts her.
Sun coaxes them all to life in a bravura solo performance full of feeling and enriched by expressive physical gestures and psychologically defining speech patterns. Working without costumes, thesp yields the stage to kids like Brian, who drinks Red Bull and bounces off walls; Coca, the only kid in class with a dad; Shondrika, the girl with attitude; Chris, who is cast as the Aborigine for good reason; and Jerome the enchanter, the bold, smart class leader who wins and breaks the teacher’s heart.
For all its technical artistry, this is no acting tour de force for its own sake. After awhile, the funny student voices take on character and the characters take on distinct — and amazingly lovable — personalities. And pretty soon, the students begin to understand why the play they are working on has meaning for them. “Because we treated like convicts every day,” says Jerome, summing it up for the rest of them.
Sun also takes on the parents, administrators, security guards and other grownups who ride herd on these troubled kids. She nails the feisty school principal simply by squaring her shoulders, and captures a terrified new teacher with an eloquent cringe. But she invests a good bit of well-spent time in Jackson, the ancient janitor, who gives historical perspective to the play, as well as serving as mouthpiece for the scribe’s political condemnation of the education system.
It’s Jackson who tells us, “Hush, ’cause you could learn a little something.” It’s Jackson who points out the $30,000 security system that makes the students feel like prisoners. And it’s Jackson who praises the demoralized teachers and has a kind word for these untamed children.
Fittingly, however, it’s a student who gets the point of it all when he quotes a line from “Our Country’s Good”: “In my own small way, in just a few hours, I have seen something change.” And in her own not-so-small way, Sun has made it happen.