By Marlene S. Gaylinn

“No Child,” the title of the play currently running at Long Wharf Theatre, refers to the “No Child Left Behind Act” of 2002, and illustrates the ongoing issues regarding our nation’s public schools.   The familiar subject matter is attracting many teachers and administrators who are flocking to see this comic, yet bittersweet satire.  “No Child” illustrates educators’ frustrations with challenging, sometimes-dangerous students who practically dare you to teach them anything.    It also explores social issues, outdated forms of teaching, and a poorly funded public educational system that fails to motive these problem students

As a native of the Lower East Side and a teacher in the New York City school system, Nilaja Sun knows pretty well what she’s talking about.  The writer is also multi-talented.  Sun not only knows her subject well and can write about it with flair, she is a fine actress who has the ability to capture the peculiar language of minority teenagers, their street-smart attitudes and body language, plus replicate a multitude of dialects.  

Under Hal Brooks brilliant direction, Sun displays an amazing talent to turn herself into a school custodian, a classroom of eccentric, learning deficient individuals, teachers and administrators, Spanish-speaking parents and her landlord to whom she owes considerable rent.  Like the “Picture of Dorian Grey,” Sun’s face and body and personality changes from character to character right before your eyes.   She even engages several characters at once in snappy conversations.  This critic has never seen an actor perform such skillful, split second transformations while onstage, facing an audience and without the use of masks, wigs or props.  Sun was practically dancing to her dialogue in this one woman, ninety-minute play.

The plot is simple and predictable.  Beginning with the school’s elderly, limping custodian who serves as the play’s narrator, Sun sets the opening scene. Then she becomes a teacher struggling to engage the attention of her learning challenged students on her first day at school. The young woman wants to present a play, “Our Country’s Good,” which is about Australian convicts.  She thinks her students might identify with it.  But the kids have no discipline, respect or attention span to even hear her out.  One gum-chewing girl suddenly pops up and assuming a dramatic, Oscar Award pose, demands the leading role.  Another student, with the attitude of a gang leader, slouches down in his seat and while spreading his legs wide and holding onto his crutch, defiantly announces that he’s not interested in doing the play.  A third student who obviously has a mouth deformity, phumphers incoherently when asked to read a few lines.  And so it goes on until the bell rings and the students rush out in the middle of a sentence.  After some tragedy and strife, the devoted teacher gains some sensitivities and street smarts of her own and is finally able to motivate her students towards a purpose.

The audience gave Sun a well-deserved, cheering ovation.  Although highly entertaining, “No Child” has an underlying, serious message.   Mayors, Governors and President Obama -- are you listening?

“No Child” plays until April 18.

 Marlene S. Gaylinn is a member of CT Critics Circle. Her reviews appear in ON CT THEATRE, THE PENNYSAVER and ctcritics.org.

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