It surely is a jungle out there, in the real world. But the blackboard jungle isn’t always much easier to navigate. Along the gritty corridors of Malcolm X High School in the Bronx, N.Y., students pass through metal detectors en route to class, under the gaze of an irate security guard. (The procedure makes airport security at J.F.K. look like a breeze.) Teachers bark at 16-year-olds to sit down and be quiet. Reserving facilities is a battle of guts and wits, since Malcolm X High shares a building with three other schools. “We are the worst class,” a group of 10th graders declares repeatedly, like some sort of mantra. The students are jaded and expect every new teacher to abandon them, just like all the ones who came before. Bars, invisible or otherwise, are everywhere.
These parallels between school and prison are not lost on Ms. Sun, an aspiring actress and teaching artist tasked with turning a class of rowdy “delinquents” into convincing “thespians.” Ms. Sun is the protagonist of Nilaja Sun’s Obie Award-winning play, No Child, which will be staged by The Readers’ Theatre this weekend only. It doesn’t take long for Ms. Sun to realize that she has made a serious gaffe in selecting, for the students’ performance, Timberlake Wertenberger’s Our Country’s Good — a play about 18th century convicts putting up a play. As one student protests, “Isn’t it illegal to teach this white shit?” The unfortunate setting aside, the idea of a play within a play (within a play) heightens the already overwhelming sense of entrapment. In agony, Ms Sun cries out, “They have the whole world telling them that they are going to jail. How dare I?”
No Child, as its title suggests, deals with students who have been left behind by the U.S. public school system. The 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, signed by President George W. Bush, lurks about like an insidious shadow. In the chaos of getting 10th graders to settle down for class, oblique references to imminent bouts of standardized academic testing are frequently made. Nilaja Sun makes the political personal, basing No Child on her early struggles in New York City public schools, transforming the lives of “emotionally and academically challenged students” (the euphemism draws chuckles from the students). The plot sounds predictably saccharine, but Sun rescues the play from becoming a run-of-the-mill, feel-good inspirational teacher drama. She infuses the play with wit and grit, simply by telling the truth.
At Saturday’s press preview, Ithaca College Prof. Cynthia Henderson, theatre arts, proved to be a veritable tour-de-force. Directed by Anne Marie Cummings, the performance reading was transfixing. Henderson seamlessly switched between all the play’s 16 roles, sketching dialogues between Ms. Sun and her diverse charges by altering her posture and tone of voice. In swift succession, the audience encountered the serial mumbler Philip, the flamboyant diva Shandrika Jones and the earnest leader of the pack Jerome. Henderson’s expedient character changes are reason enough to watch the show.
The sage janitor, who narrates the tale (“I’m good at this,” he wryly observes), marvels at how God creates enough teachers each year to staff New York City’s public schools. Often, it just takes an inspired glance at a teaching service advertisement on an MTA train (the MTA is affectionately referenced throughout the play as a likely career destination for Malcolm X High students) to convince an affluent professional to make a career switch for “a lifetime of glorious purpose and meaning.” Glorious is surely the right word.
Music speaks when no words can, just as in past Readers’ performance readings (Hank Roberts’ contemplative cello accompaniment to last season’s Uncle Vanya comes to mind). Elisa Sciscioli, lead singer-songwriter of the local band Solstice, steers the five-member choir through the play’s emotional storm. “Soon we will be done / with the troubles of the world / going home to be with God,” the choir sings, mellow and measured. The hymns soar, reminiscent of the negro spirituals and intense toil of another era.
Retaining her sense of fun and realism to the play’s vivid end, Sun offers the viewer a glimpse into the future. Ms. Sun becomes a much-decorated actress and marries Denzel Washington. “No one expects us to do anything but drop out and get pregnant, go to jail or work for the MTA.” That student’s words prove prescient, as the members of Ms. Sun’s maiden acting class take on these divergent paths.
Everyone is hungry. That, it seems, is what binds everyone’s stories. “Man is free,” a girl solemnly declares, after the play’s unsurprising success. “That is what you taught us, isn’t it, Ms. Sun?” That is why, the girl explains, she wants a different life for her unborn child. We will go travelling, she muses, we will see the world beyond the Bronx.
It is a bittersweet instance, because these grand plans are so likely to fall through. Hope is a precious, precious thing.
The Readers’ Theatre will perform No Child from Friday to Sunday, at The Space near Greenstar. Following Friday’s performance, Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 will deliver a brief talk-back. For ticket information, visit www.thereaderstheatre.com.