Nilaja Sun’s Obie award-winning off-Broadway hit No Child … has just been extended for another week on Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, but it’s not really part of Berkeley Rep’s season so much as a post-season chaser, the last stop on the show’s acclaimed national tour.
It’s easy to see why this solo show has proven to be so popular. Sun’s performance as the various students, teachers, principal, janitor and security guard of the Bronx’s Malcolm X High is masterfully versatile and often hilarious, and her story is fast-paced and fun, heartwarming and inspiring. It’s good gateway theater, the type of show to which you could bring your teenager or mom of friend who doesn’t tend to go to a lot of plays and be reasonably confident that they’ll enjoy it, even if they don’t get the joke about Richard Brinsley Sheridan.
Whether it’s entirely satisfying comes down to the highly subjective question of whether it’s a little too heartwarming. The scenario is familiar from countless feature films, of one inspirational educator making a difference in the lives of inner-city youth. There’s the moment when the kids give up on the teacher, and the one where she almost gives up on them. Inevitably the hard realities of students’ home lives interfere with their school endeavors, in a manner strikingly similar to the excellent 2002 documentary OT: Our Town, about putting on the first school play in twenty years at a Compton high school.
The difference here is that it’s being told by the teacher in question herself, in a playful way that makes the show’s seventy minutes breeze by.
Based on Sun’s experiences as a teaching artist in the New York Public Schools, No Child … depicts her bounding into the classroom, full of hope, to wrangle the students of the “worst class” in the impoverished urban high school into actors for a student production of Our Country’s Good, Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play set in an 18th-century Australian penal colony.
Appropriately enough, that play is also about putting on a play, with an officer directing convicts in George Farquhar’s Restoration comedy The Recruiting Officer. No sooner does Sun start kicking herself for choosing a play about prisoners for students who are being written off as future jailbirds than she cuts to the students reassuring her that it’s appropriate because the school system makes them feel like prisoners.
Sun plays herself with an exaggerated physicality, her limbs always moving in flowing gestures that suggest a combination of nervous energy and theatricality that make it actually plausible for her to address a fidgety class of Bronx high school students as “thespians.”
Her physical transformations are particularly impressive as she leaps quickly from character to character to character with no costume changes needed, keeping each one distinct even as she plays an entire classroom of kids interrupting each other. As the hopelessly overwhelmed teacher Ms. Tam, her body folds in on itself, her face fixed in a sad scowl as she walks back and forth sideways like a crab.
As soon as she limps in as the janitor who narrates the piece, it’s instantly recognizable that he’s an elderly African-American man — from the way Sun’s jaw hangs, you can practically see a big white mustache.
The only character to address the audience directly, janitor Baron tells the story with infectious relish. As likeable as he is, the use of the magic janitor as a framing device is where the show teeters uncomfortably into sentimentality. A similar device of using a third-party character to narrate the performer’s own story is also used in Dan Hoyle’s long-running solo show at the Marsh about Nigeria, Tings Dey Happen, which won the Glickman Award for best play to debut in the Bay Area in 2007. But in Tings the narrative device makes sense, as a stage manager introduces the story and comments on it as a substitute for Hoyle, who doesn’t appear as a character in his story except as reflected in the eyes of the characters speaking to him.
The old janitor with a twinkle in his eye who’s seen it all and chuckles about how Ms. Sun doesn’t know what she’s gotten herself into feels more like the reassuring presence of Bill Cosby on Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, just hanging around to make sure the right lessons are learned. A where-are-they-now segment at the end that outlines fanciful futures for the students and Sun herself also is a little too cute.
Sun can certainly hold her own alongside other chameleon-like solo performers such as Danny Hoch or Anna Deveare Smith. But as entertaining and inspirational as No Child … is, there’s something in the way that everything’s tied up with a little bow that makes it feel like a relatively lightweight piece despite its potentially weighty subject matter — that the children are our future, and their future is being written off cavalierly by a system too worn out to care.