The Playgoer: REVIEW: No Child...

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Tuesday, August 08, 2006

REVIEW: No Child...

No Child...
by and starring Nilaja Sun
at the Barrow Street Theatre

Nilaja Sun's one-woman show is about her experiences teaching theatre in the NYC public school system. Sun's performance here makes this a must-see. "Chameleon" does not even begin to describe her fluid slippages in and out of her multiple identities of kids and adults of different ages, races, and genders. More than a stunt, this is masterful storytelling. You're convinced you're watching a complete ensemble on stage, and get to know the characters amazingly specifically--from the over-testosteroned 18-year-old 10th grader to the beleaguered Asian classroom teacher who has to withstand constant epithets hurled at her by her charges.

"No Child..." tugs at the heartstrings with its "let's put on a show" narrative (in this case, the unlikely show of Our Country's Good). And anyone with any romance in them about the power of theatre will find themselves tearing up now and then--such as when a Puerto Rican grandmother tries to explain in her broken English how her grandson insists on going on with the show despite losing his brother to a gang shooting. Sun effectively draws both on our love of theatre and our empathy for kids under oppressive conditions...What she does not do, however, is follow through on the political promise of her title. Her school employees make passing reference to the test-driven, social-Darwinist demands now imposed by the Bush administration's signature education policy, but such systemic problems are hardly the focus. (Despite the fact that her play almost gets pushed aside for more test prep.) So while the piece seems on first approach to be one of advocacy, it's really just another "triumph of the human spirit" story. We've seen this movie before. Hoosiers in Harlem, complete with the "big game" at the end (or, "opening night). Add to that the strained device of having an aged folksy janitor serve as narrator, and "No Child..." ends up being a little too easy with its hard hitting subject.

While I was frustrated by what the show could have done to (god forbid) "teach" us about what's wrong with the education system and we can do to change it, I also have to say it's quite satisfying as what it is, which is a virtuoso showpiece for a talented observer of inner city life, and an affecting love letter to the theatre. At barely over an hour, though, you might feel shortchanged by the $45 ticket. So look for discounts.

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