Saturday, May 24, 2008
Berkeley Rep presents Obie Award-winner Nilaja Sun in No Child, the stunning solo show about Americas schools that became the breakaway off-Broadway hit of the year. ( Melissa Friedman )
This looks really cool and politically powerful. While Sun mentions doubt that it will change the minds of politicians and decision makers I think it can potentially make an impact on educating voters who appoint them. -Patricia
'NO CHILD . . .' PLAYWRIGHT DRAWS FROM EXPERIENCE
By Karen D'Souza | Mercury News
Society gets a flunking grade in "No Child . . . "
A barrage of metal detectors and armed guards greet students on the way to class at the fictional Malcolm X High School in the Bronx. The distinct resemblance between entering an inner-city school and getting into a maximum-security prison was not lost on Nilaja Sun.
"God bless teachers. I could never do it," says the actress-playwright, her voice a little raggedy from running through the 17 characters in her breakthrough hit play. "I really wanted to shine a light on that feeling of being in prison, of kids going from one institution to another."
Sun draws on her time as a "teaching artist" in New York City public schools where she saw the harsh reality of the fallout from No Child Left Behind, the 2001 federal law that holds public schools accountable for improving student test scores. She uses those experiences in her critically hailed 70-minute solo show, which runs through June 8 at Berkeley Rep.
" 'No Child . . . ' strikes me as a particularly important piece of theater because it offers a window into a world that is terribly important to so many of us, but which we are unable to experience (again) ourselves," says Susie Medak, managing director of Berkeley Rep. "Nilaja allows the audience to eavesdrop on our public schools."
Here we witness the trials and tribulations of a generation of students imprisoned by expectations as low as budgets. Simply clad in a white shirt and dark pants, Sun plays all the parts in this hardscrabble inner-city universe, the anti-"Disney High School Musical," as it were, from janitors to teachers to parents and students.
"I really wanted to break down what's going on with the politics of public education, but I realized that many audience members have never been in (today's) public schools, and they are scared of inner-city kids. So they won't be able to absorb statistics and dogma," she says. "My goal here was to try to open up people's hearts, so that when they hear about the No Child Left Behind law, they don't just hear words in their brain; they have emotion in their hearts."
The Obie-winning Sun projects her gallery of characters from within. Hopscotching through personas without benefit of elaborate costumes and props, she has emerged on the national scene as a quick-change artist whose technical mastery impresses even other solo artists.
"She is an amazing performer, jaw-droppingly fast and precise at the same time," says Dan Hoyle, who just won the Glickman Award for "Tings Dey Happen," which recently ran off-Broadway. "And she does it all without costumes, just our collective imagination, which is the essence of the magic of theater."
Beyond her fierce facility with the craft, it's Sun's blend of personal and political and her use of the solo form to speak to the state of society at large that most impresses Medak.
"Nilaja is much more than a solo performer. She is an insightful observer of social conditions, in the tradition of Anna Deavere Smith," Medak says. "She's created a piece that stands on its own as art but that also has the value of being powerful social commentary."
Sun also has scored straight A's with critics. The New Yorker called the show "an object lesson in what should not be missing from any life curriculum: hope." The Los Angeles Times raved that "what may sound like a predictable journey from hard knocks to triumph shifts into something electric through Sun's stunning, disciplined performance."
The playwright-actress weaves together strains of experiences from almost 50 public schools, where she staged productions of everything from "Antigone" to "Raisin in the Sun." Though originally commissioned by New York's Epic Theater, a company with a sharp political aesthetic, "No Child . . . " pops with warmth and wit as much as satire and analysis.
"If you bash people over the head, they will just turn the page," Sun notes. "I wanted to let everyone know that, even though these kids are in tremendous circumstances in our inner cities, and I'm not saying they love their circumstances, but there's a lot of joy there, a lot of joking around. And I don't think a lot of people know that.
"I wanted to shine a light on the real humor the kids have," she says. "Humor is so important in the journey of hope."
Snap and strut are hallmarks of a classroom where smart-mouths rule and weakness is not an option. Indeed, in "No Child . . . " - when the teacher tells her class she wants to make them all thespians - semantic potshots abound. When she tells them she wants to stage Timberlake Wertenbaker's "Our Country's Good," a play about convicts in an Australian penal colony, one young fellow enthuses: "Yo, Justin Timberlake done wrote himself a play!"
Sun, who comes from a family of teachers, admits she would love to change the state of the public schools, but failing that she'll settle for giving teachers a voice in the public discourse.
"A lot of people may have given up hope, but the teachers never have and they never will."
She sees the play as a political act but not necessarily in the sense of lobbying lawmakers and pushing for reforms. Rather, Sun hopes to sing the praises of the unsung heroes. She hopes the show gives teachers a sense that their daily battles have not gone unnoticed.
"I don't know if I can change the politicians, but I know that tens of thousands of teachers have seen the show, and they go back to their kids just a little bit changed, a little bit lighter," Sun says. "They are able to breathe a little bit, to just get a little bit more oxygen. That's the revolution for me."
As Wertenbaker put it, this is theater as an expression of civilization. In the process of putting on the play, the class delves into its sense of identity, from the coarseness of hip-hop culture to the politics of language.
"The N-word - that's No. 1 with me," says Sun. "I have to tell them I don't want to hear it. Then we have to have the whole N-word conversation. And sometimes they don't get it, but there's no way you can be open if you are afraid of being called a name, of being taunted."
Fans of the play say "No Child . . . " speaks to the power of the arts to reach out to students languishing in a school system in crisis.
"Here in California, it has been 30 years since many of our public schools programmed arts as a regular part of the curriculum," Medak says. "So it is refreshing to be reminded, in 'No Child . . . ' of some of the values of teaching the arts: learning the capacity to imagine, the capacity for empathy, the pleasure of being recognized for accomplishment, the value of personal risk-taking for the purpose of achieving new skills."
Yet for all its heartwarming motifs, there are no happy endings here. Crime may well be one of the few booming industries for young people without footholds for scaling the cliffs of a shaky economy. Shortly after Sun completed one of her school theater projects, a star pupil was arrested for petty theft and sent to Rikers Island jail.
"He was the prince of the classroom; he was very much like the character of Jerome in the play. It was so disappointing. It was crazy," she says. "Of course, a lot of my students have gone on to good things. My hope is that they become good people, good citizens."
Introspection darkens her thoughts as she comes to the end of her journey with "No Child . . . " after two years of performing it almost non-stop.
"Oh boy. Don't get me started. I'm trying not to get emotional," says Sun. "Berkeley is going to be the last stop, the last city of the run."
Letting go of "No Child . . . ," which has been the center of her life for so long, also means passing the torch to other actresses.
"I can't wait to see other people do the show, because really in the end, it's about the story; it's not about me. There are a lot of teachers all over the country, and this is the story of their lives. It's not just my story, so I'll gladly give it up."'No Child . . . '
Written by and starring Nilaja Sun
Where: Thrust Stage, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St.
When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays (no matinee May 24), 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays
Through: June 8