Nilaja Sun’s “No Child …,” dramatizing a trip down a rabbit hole into the bizarro world of urban public schools, is a bracing antidote to the pompous rhetoric of an election year. In its understated way, Sun’s tour de force says more about America’s education crisis than all the political bloviation from left and right. As with Matt Sax’s “Clay” last fall, the spacious yet intimate Kirk Douglas proves an ideal venue for one performer — here in 16 distinct roles — bearing witness to art’s power to inspire and redeem those children whom society has written off and, yes, left behind.
Sun knows the struggle from the inside as one of New York City’s “teaching artists” — pros sent to at-risk schools to attempt their magic. Slightly fictionalized as “Ms. Sun,” the writer-thesp acts out every painful step of a six-week effort to whip up a production of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s “Our Country’s Good” in a supposedly incorrigible 10th grade class in depressed Malcolm X High in the Bronx. (Choice of play, describing a playmaking project by 18th century Australian convicts, offers a particularly apt parallel to a cast daily schooled behind barbed wire, metal detectors and armed guards.)
Biggest obstacle to the mission is not funding, time, nor even the standardized testing mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act (in denunciation of which Sun shoehorns in an editorial midway).Rather, the toughest nut to crack proves to be attitude, whether it be official skepticism or parental disinterest.
Most perilous attitude of all, of course, is the knee-jerk rejection of any betterment project by the bored, angry, disaffected kids themselves. Knowing nothing is expected of them, they too eagerly (mis-)behave accordingly, fired up on Red Bull and yearning for a recess likely to last their whole lives in the absence of a committed mentor.
Enter Ms. Sun, stage center.
Actress dizzyingly shape-shifts among the Malcolm X teachers and students like the Genie in Disney’s “Aladdin.” Wearing only a white button-down shirt and a pair of Dockers, Sun summons up each character with a single evocative gesture — vain Shondrika vogueing with hand to hair; anxious Jose pulling at his shirt; timid fellow teacher Ms. Tam hunching her shoulders, feet together — such that even group scenes busy with overlapping dialogue come through with crisp clarity.
Two characters are defined not in pose but in motion. School janitor Jackson’s stiff-legged walk presages his philosophical perspective on education after 50 years of floor mopping. And Sun herself is always on the balls of her feet, hopping, punching the air to encourage her kids to take the leap into artistic expression. (Character claims to have lost 10 pounds during the rehearsal period, but it looks as if Sun is destined to drop 10 pounds per performance.)
Eventually, the indefatigable Ms. Chips breaks through and a performance comes off, though not before all concerned have suffered the slings and arrows of gang violence, institutional pressure and self-doubt.
Play’s events proceed somewhat predictably, perhaps the easier to engage youth unfamiliar with theater, who may constitute its ideal audience. Nevertheless, the precision with which Sun nails both the students’ personalities and their anguish is truly riveting. Beautifully shaped by helmer Hal Brooks, and lit by Mark Barton to subtly convey scenic and mood changes, “No Child …” assumes a greater aesthetic weight than its brevity (just over an hour) and narrow scope might suggest.