According to the U.S. Department of Education, we can all rejoice since “President Bush made a commitment to ensure that all children receive a high-quality education so that no child is left behind. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has led to higher standards and greater accountability throughout the Nation’s school system.” Of course, anyone with more direct experience of New York City public schools knows otherwise—the incredible disparity between schools in wealthier districts and in poorer ones, the failure of standardized tests to measure classroom performance, and how very many children are left behind, or stop attending school altogether. Nilaja Sun, a writer-performer, has observed the fruits of the NCLB policy during her eight years as a teaching artist in public high schools. She’s distilled her experiences into her one-woman show No Child.
Janitor Baron, the first character Sun inhabits, introduces us to the moldering hallways of Malcolm X High School in the Bronx. Among the school’s amenities, Baron lists metal detector machines, metal detector wands, five school guards, and armed NYPD officers. “Guess all we missing is a bomb-sniffing dog,” he chuckles. Into these fluorescent lights and crumbling bricks bounces teaching artist Miss Sun. She has big plans for the 20-odd 10th-graders in her charge. In six weeks, she tells them, they’ll have read a play, analyzed it, rehearsed it, and performed it for family and friends. For the class’s stage debut, she’s chosen not A Raisin in the Sun but the rather more challenging Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good, which concerns 18th-century Australian convicts who are also putting on a show.
Sun vaults vigorously from her own persona to teachers, security guards, and a dozen of her reluctant charges. Pixie-like and loose-limbed, she exudes an infectious energy—any classroom she visits should count itself blessed. But 10F doesn’t, not at first. Its students are far too concerned with insulting each other, terrorizing their teacher, and strolling in half an hour late. And no way are they calling themselves lesbians! “It’s thespians,” corrects Miss Sun. Of course, Miss Sun eventually wins over her students, and her audience. Much of her material’s frankly facile— predictable and too reliant on stereotype. But the force of her performance, doubtless shaped by director Hal Brooks, quiets these objections. The script’s lacking, but her star turn should earn her an A.