Long Wharf Theatre Stage II, New Haven
“No Child…” had already exploded on the Connecticut stage two years ago at Hartford’s Theaterworks. In that memorable production director Rob Ruggiero had expanded the original one-woman piece into a full play with cast of four.
But now, on Long Wharf’s Stage II, the writer/actor Nilaja Sun returns her piece to its original format. (Sun wrote “No Child…” in 2007 as a solo piece, which was staged off-Broadway and went on to take numerous awards.) Once again it is Nilaja Sun alone on stage, recounting her experience as a teaching artist. She takes it all on her own slim shoulders—as she creates the numerous characters in her saga.
The story (in fact, Sun’s own story) is familiar, frequently covered on stage and screen. A young, naïve, idealistic woman comes to an inner-city school, takes on the kids, and, predictably, turns their lives around. 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 (in fact, the Greek chorus of “No Child…), the story follows Sun’s trials 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 along the way.
How well does this “No Child…” work? Undoubtedly, dividing the many roles among several actors (as in the Ruggiero production) made for a clarification and a richness which Sun’s solo lacks. But a solo performance has its compensations. Sun works hard, using body language to define each character. The janitor limps, the boys slouch, the girls preen, as Sun herself stands out in contrast as the committed teacher. Her lines are clearly enunciated, but her students’ speeches are more often lost in a rapid jumble of street slang.
Yet the gist of the story comes through even as a solo performance. It is a moving tale of aspiration and achievement.
-- Irene Backalenick
Mar. 20, 2010