By Roz Friedman
Nilaja Sun has taken over the stage of Long Wharf’s Stage II and in a mercurial performance is giving a class in acting and playwriting. Directed with whipping speed by Hal Brooks, she’s performing her own show No Child….and it should not be missed. A couple of years ago, this same play was presented at Hartford’s Theatre Works using several actors instead of one. The difference is catastrophic. The first was like seeing a blurred poster of a famous work of art; this is seeing the original, shining in all it clarity and colors.
Ms. Sun plays a New York City theater instructor, conveniently named Ms. Sun, struggling against all odds to teach inner city teenagers at Malcolm X High School in the Bronx to stage a production of an Australian play, “Our Country’s Good.” Written by Timberlake Wertneberg, it tells the story of convicts. She’s got 6 weeks to accomplish this seemingly impossible task of teaching the play and more important-teaching freedom and what it means to these students.
Ms. Sun, the teacher, is met with teachers in the school who are negative and frightened. This class has had 5 teachers in 7 months! She works with students whose language is studded with expletive, are late for class on a regular basis, and face violence on their streets and in their homes. When she tells them to think of themselves as thespians—they yell back –“Lesbians.” The one positive thing she has on her side is the principal, a woman of firm convictions.
As a hook, Ms. Sun uses the wise crippled janitor, who has been working at the school since 1958, as her narrator. Watching her transform herself in a blink of an eye from the fresh young teacher fighting to pay her rent, into a wizened old man, and then into the individual students, male and female, is remarkable. For one hour we are mesmerized as we learn to know these characters.
Among the many awards that Nilaja Sun has won since 2007 when she presented No Child… at the Barrow Street Theatre in New York, is the Outer Critics Circle John Gassner Playwriting Award for Outstanding New American Play. She has performed this over 600 times. Don’t miss the privilege of experiencing this at Long Wharf’s Stage II. Only through April 18th.
This review originally aired on WMNR 88.1FM FINE ARTS PUBLIC RADIO