nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
July 15, 2006
No Child..., the one-woman show that Nilaja Sun wrote for herself, is a crowd-pleasing tour-de-force, a play about Sun's own experiences working as a teaching artist in the New York City public school system in which she portrays a zillion characters—students, teachers, parents, principal, wise old Black custodian, and of course herself—switching them on and off with less than a shrug to impressive and often humorous effect. People are loving this show, and showering Sun with acclaim for her vigorous and joyful performance.
The story goes like this: bright-eyed idealistic young actor Sun is assigned to teach a class of 10th graders how to put on a play at (fictitious) Malcolm X High School, located in the Bronx in the "poorest Congressional district in the country." The class she is to work with is, naturally, one of the very worst classes in the school. Their teacher is Ms. Lam, an Asian American who gave up her lucrative Wall Street job in hopes of finding fulfillment in the classroom but who has no idea how to control her charges. (The kids will go through two more teachers during Sun's six-week tenure.) But Sun is able to quiet them down, explaining that they will be putting on a play (Our Country's Good, Timberlake Wertenbaker's piece about convicts putting on a play in colonial Australia). It will give nothing away to tell you that the production, though fraught with troubles throughout, is a smash hit, and that the self-esteem of most of the kids Sun comes in contact with is enormously improved thanks to her inspirational influence.
Now, quite apart from the unseemly lack of modesty on Sun's part here—surely even a moderately humble person wouldn't declare themselves so publicly and brazenly a local hero, even to the point of supplying a "where-are-they-now" ending in which she awards herself an Oscar—and not denying the bravura display that Sun puts on for her audience here, I am at great pains to note that No Child... has very little actual substance. The press release proclaims it "an unflinching look into the New York City Education system." This it assuredly is not. Or, if it is, then so was Welcome Back, Kotter.
Because that sitcom from my youth was what I was constantly reminded of while I watched No Child... Though every adult at Malcolm X except for the sage old custodian is depicted as either a clueless moron or a heartless bureaucrat (or both), the kids are ultimately all lovable and sweet (though presented as caricatures, I fear, rather than characters). If the school system is broken, wouldn't some of these kids not be able to read? These kids are downright fluent, and manage to memorize their roles in the play without any apparent assistance from anybody. Oh, and all of them always call their visiting teaching artist "Miss."
As for what might be wrong with our schools, though Sun trots out some of the usual suspect-type issues, from hour-long lines at the metal detectors to a wrong-headed emphasis on standardized testing to a literally disintegrating infrastructure, she provides no information likely to be unfamiliar to anyone who occasionally reads the newspaper or watches TV news. Her title is a reference to President Bush's "No child left behind" legislation, but she only pays lip service to the idea of reform; indeed, no specific, actionable problems are asserted in the show and no tangible solutions proffered.
Okay, one solution: let the remarkable Nilaja Sun enter a classroom for six weeks, and then watch out! In her finale, Sun suggests, somewhere between her fantasy Oscar and becoming Denzel Washington's wife, that she'll rewrite the "No child..." laws in this country. If so, she'd better get to work on formulating some actual ideas. All that's on exhibit is No Child... is a lot of smoke and mirrors.
Nevertheless, go ahead and enjoy Sun's self-congratulatory show if you care to; just don't expect to gain any insight into a situation that could use some genuinely serious consideration these days, whether in the theatre or elsewhere.