- No Child
Critically acclaimed for its tour de force solo performance by playwright-actress Nilaja Sun, No Child . . . works as distinctly American civic theatre. First developed for Epic Theatre while Sun was a teaching artist in the New York City public schools, this seventy-minute Obie Award–winning performance theatricalized her work with multi-ethnic teens and their teachers and staff members, navigating some of the nation’s most at-risk inner-city schools, here dramatized while trying to rehearse and perform Timberlake Wertenbaker’s historical metaplay of underclass civic trans/formation, Our Country’s Good. Created in 2006, with partial funding from the New York State Council on the Arts and then toured nationally after breakaway success Off-Broadway, Sun’s solo show provided generous, ironic, and often painful counter-testimony to the efficacy of former President George W. Bush’s 2002 No Child Left Behind Act.
No Child . . . offers a fictionalized ethnographic performance of the people Sun met in nine years of fostering civic engagement through theatre, distilled at the composite Malcolm X High School—a public institution distinguished by barbed wire, metal detectors, and armed guards, and where building repairs remain unfunded for years. The school’s name and renewal plans change with each decade of social reforms and cultural icons, as wryly noted by the school’s elderly African American janitor—a peaceable, folksy confidante of school history and race changes in the United States. To introduce a marginalized, urban, and racial microcosm of America, Sun’s character, Janitor Baron, evokes a recasting of the almost all-knowing Stage Manager from Our Town. He begins and ends the play singing the blues, believing that someday “the sun’s gonna shine” on our public schools and, perhaps most of all, on our underclass children of color. For as this Bronx school’s demography has changed, so too has public investment and confidence in the students declined, until today it is experienced by students and Miss Sun as not unlike a prison. Here the prison analogy closely echoes the penal colony setting used in Wertenbaker’s contemporary classic to stage civic theatre.
Indeed, Sun effectively adapts Wertenbaker’s multi-ethnic meta-play across civic histories, cultures, and theatrical languages, specifically retooling its arguments and performance of citizenship created in oppressive circumstances. Both titles ironize social policies: of transport, penal systems, and England’s colony in Wertenbaker’s, of public-education systems and US politics in Sun’s. Meanwhile, No Child . . . adapts the structure, text, and themes of the British ensemble history play to the contemporary American solo performance by foregrounding spoken vernaculars and embodied rhythms of movement and identity, with moments of Sun’s performance approaching hip-hop theatre. Ultimately, both plays use meta-theatre and intertexts to debate how to build a good society and to stage theatre’s possibilities for re-imagining self, community, and civics. Sun’s students perform alternate visions of who might enact, and how to [End Page 108] enact, civic ideals and even leadership were we to recognize underclass Americans differently, were they joined in collaborative community, and/or if we might reimagine the violent, grim realities of their daily lives. Jerome, for example, challenges Miss Sun’s lead, resisting her idealistic call for enfranchisement with street bravado; yet at home he memorizes Governor Phillip’s speeches on citizenship, humanity, and the power of theatre. Ultimately, although he moves the project forward with his eloquence and investment, he misses the performance due to family exigencies, causing a heartbreaking, ironic disruption to his dream of a different life. Thus Sun’s students discover their potential and debate their rights as citizens as they, like Wertenbaker’s convicts, excavate the script—and its relevance to self and society—that they will stage.
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Part of the force of Sun’s civic activism was offering herself as a character—comic, courageous, naïve, critically engaged, and compelled to testify— who openly struggles with...