Encore Michigan

‘No Child’ teaches what’s right in public schools

Review November 12, 2017 Tanya Gazdik

DETROIT — It’s no big shock that inner-city public schools are lacking. But all hope is not lost, which is illustrated in the one-woman show, No Child, at the Detroit Public Theatre.

Created and performed by Nilaja Sun and directed by Hal Brooks, Sun takes on 16 characters in the roles of teachers, students, parents and a janitor at one New York City public school. Although at times tragic, the show is full of wit, warmth and wisdom. Sun has taught theatre in New York’s public schools since 1998, so she knows what she’s talking about. She has performed the play hundreds of times since 2006, but you wouldn’t know it from her delivery. It still seems fresh and current and her energy remains ridiculously high.

The one-act play’s title is a reference to President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act. Sun has stated that the show is not a direct indictment of the act, but instead is a spotlight on great teachers.

The teachers she portrays are some of the most entertaining characters. She plays herself as a short-time grant-funded drama teacher, who comes into the school with high ideas and expectations. While she is brought down a notch initially, the students respond to her and rise and flourish by fits and starts.

Watching Sun become each of the characters is mesmerizing. Each one is fully developed and the audience quickly learns who she is portraying due to her speech, facial expressions and body language. One of the most delightful is Cindy Tam, a formerly optimistic but now beleaguered English teacher, whom the students chide with chants of “Pork Fried Rice” in reference to her ethnicity.

As her autobiographic character, Sun is tasked with leading a group of 10th-grade students through a performance of — as she tells them, not “A Raisin in the Sun,” not “West Side Story,” but instead “Our Country’s Good,” a 1988 play by a woman named Timberlake Wertenbaker about a real-life lieutenant who led a group of 18th-century Australian convicts in a production of George Farquhar’s 1706 comedy “The Recruiting Officer.” The concept of the play within a play is, of course, lost on the students, one of whom confuses the author with Justin Timberlake.

The language is colorful and typical of inner-city high school students. Even the prim and proper Ms. Tam seems resigned to it, try as she might to get the students to curb it, while hilariously repeating it herself in a reprimand. “Veronica, stop hitting Chris and calling him a motherfucker.” She pauses, and then restates her request: “I’m sorry, please stop hitting Chris and calling him a motherfucker. Thanks, Veronica.”

Ms. Sun lays down the law quickly for the class, telling them when she is in the classroom, they will “not be using the word faggot or bitch or nigga or motherfucker or motherfuckerniggabitchfaggot.”

Although the play is more than 10 years old, the issues have not changed much at inner-city schools. Exhibit A: Detroit, where 96% of eighth-graders are not proficient in mathematics and 93% are not proficient in reading, according to results of the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress tests published by the Department of Education’s National Center for Educational Statistics. Clearly, we need more real-life Nilaja Suns to take an interest in engaging students.

Despite the subject matter, the play actually is quite uplifting while also being sobering. It’s time well spent, if for no other reason than to see how one woman can successfully pull off such a huge endeavor.

Week of 6/18/2018

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