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Joelle Reviews No Child at the Barrow Street Theatre
It is the classic story of goody-good teacher meets bad-ass classroom and saves the kids from a dark future of teen pregnancies, arrests, gang fights and jobs at McDonalds. But at the same time, Nilaja SunÕs play No Child is so much more. From the moment Sun, the aptly named new drama teacher, enters the fictional Malcolm X High School weÕre sent on a rollercoaster-rush journey through the depths of the New York City public school system. The set: a bare bones minimum of plastic chairs, peeling paint, PA system and a broom. The mission: teach the schoolÕs "problem class" Timberlake WertenbakerÕs play Our CountryÕs Good. This means dealing with loud-mouthed security guards, inept teachers and, of course, the "problem students" themselves -- such as class-leader Jerome, self-righteous Jose and narcissist-with-the-hard-name-to-spell Shondrika.
That's the hook -- so hereÕs the line and sinker: ItÕs a one-woman play. Written and performed by Nilaja Sun, a variety of characters from Malcolm X High School take the stage. And it's a beautiful display of mass hypnosis, where the actor convinces the audience to see things they know do not exist, such as other actors on stage. Holding things together with an elderly janitor for a narrator, Sun takes us through subway rides home, play rehearsals and student breakthroughs, without even changing costume.
But the main point of the story comes from SunÕs inner political activist. From the titleÕs obvious reference to the No Child Left Behind Act announced by President Bush in 2001, to the little informational bookmark hidden in the playbill titled "What Can I Do To Help The Schools?" it's clear that Sun aims to evoke more than a tear from the audience. This is an attempt to move people not only emotionally, but also physically, preferably into a school building or a reading club to save their own batch of juvenile delinquents.
Despite the overused plot line, No Child is touchingly sweet and humorous and makes it hard to maintain an objective view when describing it. It makes its point by forcing the audience into doing the best thing a play could force an audience to do: think. Think about our schools and our children, and motivate people to take a stand and to actually try to fix something. And even if it doesn't motivate you to think, itÕs worth it just to see such amazing hypnosis at work.