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In Nilaja Sun’s No Child …  a teacher and her students discover the magic of theater

Unfortunately, the characters lack the depth to make that transformation visible.

Jack Helbig Sep 12, 2018 6:00 AM

Named after the well-meaning but now partly discredited Bush-era education initiative No Child Left Behind and based on her own experiences, Nilaja Sun's 80-minute show tells the story of a visiting teaching artist who tries to get a class of uninterested, hostile teenagers at a rundown school in the Bronx to put on a production of British playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker's 1988 play Our Country's Good.

The choice is ironic. Our Country's Good is about prisoners putting on a play; the students in No Child … feel like prisoners too. Both Wertenbaker's prisoners and Sun's students find fulfillment and greater self-worth doing theater.

We've seen this story before, but it bears repeating: making art can redeem the world—and the artist. Sun's overarching story is also very familiar: an eager new teacher comes to a difficult, urban school where she faces an unruly classroom of urban youth who are angry, resentful, delinquent, emotionally wounded, or underappreciated—in short, left behind. At first the new teacher struggles, then she figures out how to reach her students, and in the end ("when those schoolgirl days of telling tales and biting nails are gone," in the words of the theme song of the movie version of one of those stories, To Sir, With Love), she finds she has earned their love and/or respect. This story, too, bears repeating. Every real-life teacher has experienced some version of it, including me.

Sun's show started as a solo work, performed by the playwright herself, and it must have been a real thrill to see her jump from one character to another over the course of the show. There are 16 in all: students, teachers, administrators, and a janitor who doubles as a narrator. The show was very popular; Sun won a slew of awards (an Obie Award, a Lucille Lortel Award, two Outer Critics Circle Awards) and has performed the show at, among many other places, the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colorado.

In Definition Theatre's current revival, deftly directed by Chika Ike, the roles are divided up among an ensemble of six actors. And though the cast is very strong—Kirsten Chan is particularly winning as the visiting teacher—the material sags. Sun's characters are quickly drawn, perfect for a solo performer making a quick changes, but they lack depth. We don't feel like we get to know anyone in the show well enough to feel in our hearts their remarkable transformation—not even the main character. Nor do we see enough of the student production of the play within a play to get why this British play, of all plays—a play from the late 80s about prisoners in the 18th century putting on a play from 17th century—reaches these kids and changes their lives.   v

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