If you ask me…

- Tom Holehan




Nilaja Sun's desperate new comedy, "No Child…”, is the final play in what has been a generally stellar season for Hartford TheaterWorks. Based on actual events which the playwright experienced as a theatre teacher at a Bronx high school, “No Child…” is as current as the latest yahoo update. It began life as an effective one-woman, off-Broadway play with Sun playing all the roles. It has since been re-written for four actors and works even better.

When Sun (played by a plucky Donnetta Lavinia Grays) receives an arts grant to direct “27 of the worst students in Malcolm X High School” in a production of “Our Country’s Good”, Timberlake Wertenbaker’s powerful drama about convicts in Australia putting on a play, the obstacles seem insurmountable. As narrated by the elderly, benign janitor at Malcolm X (Lizan Mitchell in an extraordinary performance), “No Child…” features only two other actors who, along with Ms. Mitchell, play a variety of students and administrators changing accents, race and genders with ease. It’s terrific ensemble work (Portia and Anthony Mark Stockard complete the company) under the always-astute direction of Rob Ruggiero. Ms. Mitchell, in particular, is astonishingly funny in one of her other incarnations playing a soft-spoken Asian teacher who doesn’t last long.

Set in a washed-out brick and mortar high school hallway (made grimly authentic by designer Brian Prather and matched by John Lasiter’s stark fluorescent lighting), “No Child…” tackles contemporary issues of racism and the public education system and does tend to go a tad soft in resolving the nearly overwhelming odds against Son succeeding. At times it has the synthetic uplift of a Lifetime movie and seems to be preaching to the choir. Still, the play remains a moving and fiercely funny study about the redemptive powers of art and culture. At the performance I attended the packed theatre and spontaneous standing ovation at final curtain seemed to say it all. Don’t miss it.

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