No Child... Theater Review - A Must See One-Woman Sensation!


Nilaja Sun in "No Child..."

No words…

There are no adequate words to describe the fantastic one-woman show that is “No Child…”

Written and performed by self-proclaimed teaching artist Nilaja (pronounced NIH-LAH-JAH) Sun, the show depicts the turbulent times and situations that Sun encountered in some of New York City’s toughest public schools. Her story begins on day one of Sun’s assignment at Malcolm X High School. Her task: take the worst 10th grade class in the school, teach them to act and put on a play at the end of the six weeks.

Initially, Sun succeeds in getting their attention; but at the weeks wear on, she can’t seem to get them to care. The students are aware that no one believes in them, so they don’t believe in themselves.


Never give up, never surrender

Can Sun muster enough enthusiasm and drive to get the students to put on "Our Country is Good”, a play about prison inmates who put on a play? Moreover, can she get the kids to see the course as an opportunity for expression instead of focusing on the themes of confinement and chronic apathy that they encounter daily in their own lives?

Titled in response to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, “No Child…” challenges the emphasis on achievement in standardized testing in math and reading without inclusion of studies that engage the imagination such as theater. At its core, “No Child…” is an impassioned battle cry to save our youth from the iron-clad cycle of neglect, indifference and  institutionalized despair that has set upon the most impoverished of our public school system.


Nilaja Sun in her stance for the character "Jerome"

The play’s the thing, in that the efficiency of the actors and the perfect execution of the lines are secondary compared to what it symbolizes for the students and for the family members who attend this guerilla production. The play’s the symbol of hope and possibility and a life beyond the minimal expectations thrust upon these disenfranchised youths. Dreams can’t take root without being nourished by possibility.


Janitor Barry is our narrator for "No Child..."

With the shift of a stance or a light change or a simple turn round and back again, Sun sails from one character to the next, never missing a single beat. She inhabits all 16 of the characters in her story completely and convincingly. From timid newbie teacher Ms. Tam, to dignified principal Ms. Kennedy, from ghetto princess Shandricka and Latina Coco, to cholo Jose, geekish Chris, mush-mouthed Phillip and head rebel rouser Jerome, each persona has his or her own unique manner and voice and physicality. Sun lovingly imbues our narrator, Janitor Barry, with the classic limp, compliments of a worn-out hip, and a healthy distaste for rap music.


Performing feats of theatrical wizardry with the greatest of ease.

And Nilaja Sun does it all, seemingly, without breaking a sweat. This show was truly amazing. Sun’s performance was a spectacular schizophrenic tour de force of emotion, character and purpose. She single-handedly fills the stage with a classroom full of racial chaos and restless teenagers one moment, only to shrink her presence down to one soul, slowly sweeping, while he enjoys the calm country quiet before the storm the next. Sun’s performance literally spans the entire spectrum of human emotion. Her piece teases you with playful humor, both broad and subtle, then pulls you into the real life drama she and her students face each and every day. Perhaps most poignant, you’ll witness the moment Sun’s best altruistic intensions succumb to self-preservation. 


Nilaja Sun in "No Child..." at the Kirk Douglas Theater

Sun’s piece reminds us, parents and citizens alike, that while test score have their importance, the place to begin preparing our youth for the future is by arming them with personal dignity and a dream. While it certainly is not a quick fix to every problem, it is a great place to start.

“No Child…” is currently running at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Downtown Culver City through April 16th.

Photos by Craig Schwartz

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