Story: Nilaja Sun is a smart, talented and energetic young actress trying to make her mark in an overly saturated field. As always, there are too many struggling performing artists competing for too few jobs, whether it’s a role in a play or an appearance in a TV commercial. So, Ms. Sun, entreating her landlord to be patient with her tardy rent while the IRS is on her back, takes an eight-week job as a teaching artist at Malcolm X High School in The Bronx, one of the toughest schools in New York City.
She’s assigned to teach a challenging class of kids whom long-time janitor Mr. Baron refers to as delinquents before correcting himself and terming them “academically and emotionally challenged.” Whatever you call them, they run roughshod over timid teacher Ms. Tam and abruptly confront their idealistic new teaching artist, who has a vision of coalescing these 10th graders from a variety of harrowing backgrounds into a cast that will eagerly enact the classic play, Our Country’s Good, about a group of 18th century Australian convicts. After one overwhelmingly relentless day after another, she questions her choice of plays, her choice of employment and even her place in the midst of all the turmoil. Can she help ensure the daunting federal dictum of “No Child Left Behind”?
Highlights: Sun’s one-act, one-woman play, which ran for nearly a year off-Broadway following its 2006 premiere, has garnered the playwright more than 20 awards, including an Obie, a Lucille Lortel and two Outer Critics Circle honors. There’s ample reason for that, as Sun is able to relate not only the feelings and aspirations of the teaching artist but also capably reflects the thoughts and emotions of a widely divergent group of people associated with her classroom, from teachers and administrators to parents and students themselves, portrayed by one actress.
Patrese McClain, an accomplished performer, is also the founder and executive director of Pure ART, a Chicago-based non-profit that facilitates arts education outreach programs in the community. Under the smooth, nurturing guidance of director Joe Hanrahan, she presents a seamless, compelling and extremely impressive performance of a struggling young professional trying to make a small difference in the lives of a couple of dozen hard-knock kids from the poorest part of Gotham, just “18 minutes,” as Ms. Sun notes, by subway from some of the wealthiest homes in the country.
Other Info: McClain commands the stage throughout the 90-minute presentation, contorting her body and facial expressions as she morphs from an elderly janitor into a foul-mouthed survivor of the ‘hood in the blink of an eye. Her chameleonic ability to transform from a meek Asian-American teacher into a brash young African-American teen girl is a wonder of skill and dexterity that she maintains throughout her dazzling performance.
She’s greatly aided by Hanrahan’s wise and careful direction that utilizes some precise technical designs to enhance and accentuate McClain’s portrayals. The set designed by Brian Purlee is simple in execution, offering a rather drab brick background that ascends into a projection area that features an effective video montage placing us in a classroom, Ms. Sun’s apartment, the school’s auditorium and other locations that allude to various characters, all courtesy of lighting designer Sean Savoie. Robin Weatherall adds some harsh and abrasive contemporary sounds of the city, while Linda Kennedy provides a wardrobe that indicates the style and sophistication of Ms. Sun.
The work’s primary problem is an overly long conclusion that essentially provides about four or five endings before finally reaching its delayed destination. It’s here that Sun’s writing veers from moving and provocative to more manipulative and somewhat romantic, watering down the overall impact.
Still, her story is a shining example of the critical importance of teachers in our society, a significance that is of vital necessity if we want the United States to continue to flourish in the 21st century, and with it the pursuit of happiness for any individual that really can only be possible with the opportunity for a well-rounded and deserved education.
Play: No Child
Group: The Black Rep
Venue: Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square
Dates: March 22, 23, 24, 25, 29, 30, 31, April 1
Tickets: From $20 to $47; contact 534-3810, 534-1111 or metrotix.com
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Stewart Goldstein