Reviewed by Judy Richter
The 2002 federal No Child Left Behind Act passed congressional and presidential muster out of a shared concern about the nation's schools. Since then it has generated some controversy. It has apparently led to higher achievement in many schools, as measured by standardized tests, but its detractors say that it encourages teaching to the test and leaves less time for other learning and creativity.
Playwright-performer Nilaja Sun takes the title of her solo work, "No Child..." from that law, but she bases the work more on her experiences as a teaching artist in New York for nine years. Presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre and directed by Hal Brooks, her fictionalized story is set in a high school in Bronx, a poverty-stricken neighborhood with all the accompanying social ills.
Wearing blue pants and a white short-sleeved shirt (costume design by Jessica Gaffney), Sun portrays 17 characters -- male and female, young and old -- in her 70-minute, award-winning show, running without intermission. Her central character is Miss Sun, who is to spend six weeks at Malcolm X High School working with a class of 10th graders to stage a play. It's the most difficult group of students in the school, with no teacher lasting more than a few weeks before giving up. Mostly minority students, they're from struggling homes. They're belligerent, chronically tardy, foul-mouthed and highly skeptical.
Undeterred, Miss Sun insists on higher standards of conduct, yet remains nonjudgmental as she introduces the students to her chosen play, "Our Country's Good," written by Timberlake Wertenbaker in 1988 and based on a true story. Set in an British penal colony in Australia in the late 18th century, "Our Country's Good" concerns a British officer's effort to get a group of prisoners to stage a play, George Farquhar's "The Recruiting Officer," a 1706 English Restoration comedy that was popular at the time. Coincidentally, Berkeley Rep presented "Our Country's Good" in 1991 under the direction of Tony Taccone, who has since become the theater's artistic director.
Sun uses no props other than a broom and some plastic stacking chairs and performs against a stark background of painted, stained brick walls and two doors -- one the janitor's closet, the other leading to the classroom. The original off Broadway set design by Narelle Sissons has been locally adapted by Sibyl Wickersheimer with lighting by Mark Barton and sound by Ron Russell.
With her expressive face and limber body, the diminutive Sun easily transforms herself from the age-bent janitor, who has been at the school since 1958 and who serves as a sort of narrator, to the stern but supportive principal, a macho security guard and the timid Chinese American teacher who quits soon after Miss Sun arrives. Her minority students include the swaggering Jerome, the tongue-tied Phillip, a sassy, jiving black girl, a Puerto Rican boy whose brother is shot and killed, and a terribly shy boy. They're so challenging that she tries to quit midway through her assignment. She tells Mrs. Kennedy, the principal, that the school is "getting them ready for jail." Nevertheless, she decides to go on, achieving some breakthroughs and apparently helping some of the students go on to better things.
Like "Our Country's Good," "No Child..." is about the redemptive power of theater. Characters in both plays are the lowest rungs of society, yet because a few people in authority believe in them, they learn some valuable lessons. Nilaja Sun's insightful writing and powerful acting skills help to create a sense of hope.