The story is familiar, frequently covered on stage and screen. A teacher—young, naïve, idealistic—comes to an inner-city school, takes on the kids, and, predictably, turns their lives around. Nevertheless, this particular piece, however familiar, proves to be fresh, funny, moving.
Based on her own life experiences, playwright/actress Nilaja Sun wrote “No Child…” in 2007 as a solo piece, which was staged off-Broadway and went on to take numerous awards. Now Rob Ruggiero and Theaterworks have created an expanded version, which also works beautifully.
As to the story, Sun arrives at Malcolm X High School in the Bronx, as resident artist. She plans to have the class stage “Our Country’s Good,” the award-winning drama about 19th century Australian convicts, who, in their turn, are staging Farquhar’s 17th century “The Recruiting Officer.” In short, “No Child…,” like a nest of Russian dolls, is a play about a play within a play within a play.
With a philosophical janitor as narrator, the story follows Sun’s trials, tribulations and triumphs as her sulky, insubordinate, drugged-out students ultimately become actors. And, predictably, like the Australian convicts in “Our Country’s Good,” they develop a sense of pride and self-esteem.
Grays gives authority and warmth to her role as teacher, providing a strong core to the production. But other actors take on numerous personae, moving quickly from role to role. Mitchell is not only the aging janitor, but a timid Asian teacher, a militant Russian replacement, and a terrified mumbling student. Stockard and Portia are equally effective in their several characters. Though this switch provides an exciting challenge, a tour de force, in fact, for Mitchell, Stockard, and Portia, showing off their considerable skills, it also makes for confusion. Had Ruggiero expanded the cast, with a single actor to each part, one would have focused more on the play, not the gimmickry of multiple role-playing.
Nonetheless, “No Child…” is a worthy effort, as provocative as it is entertaining.
-- Irene Backalenick
Aug. 24, 2008