It was Robert Woodruff who recommended that I should see No Child. I knew nothing about the show, and when I arrived at the tiny theatre on Sheridan Square in New York City where it had been playing for several months, I had no idea what to expect. Ninety minutes later I left in awe at the virtuosity of Nilaja Sun’s performance, and the emotional impact it worked on her audience.
Nilaja is a “teaching artist” who works, or tries to work, in the under-funded and beleaguered New York Public School system. A few years ago she directed a production of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good at a particularly rough high school in the Bronx, where simply turning up in the morning can require bravery and ingenuity for the students and their teachers.
No Child tells the story of that production, from casting and rehearsals through to opening night. But the brilliance of Nilaja’s performance is that she enacts all the parts – the students and teachers, their parents and janitors, the guards who man the metal detectors that everyone must pass through to enter the school. The result might seem sentimental or didactic if Nilaja weren’t such a phenomenal performer; her transformations are infused with a deep compassion for her students, but also a hard-nosed awareness of the troubles they face.
In short, No Child is breathtakingly wonderful theatre. It reminded me of Anna Deavere Smith’s transformational performances, or of Pamela Gien’s chameleon role-play in The Syringa Tree, but in some ways I found it even more powerful because its subject matter is of such urgent importance – the crisis at the heart of our education system – and because Nilaja unpacks it for us with such warmth, good humor, knowledge, and skill.
Here’s a brief video clip in which Nilaja introduces the production, but in truth, you have to be there to experience it.
– Gideon Lester