“No Child…” Long Wharf Theatre Stage II

--Irene Backalenick

“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.

This review also appears in the Connecticut Post and nytheaterscene.com.

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