Even in city shadows, Sun shines

Special to Newsday

July 17, 2006

School may be out for the summer, but you won't want to ditch the class offered by the ebullient writer-performer Nilaja Sun. Her one-woman play "No Child ... " which just reopened at the Barrow Street Theatre in the West Village after an acclaimed midtown run, burnishes some well-trod genres - the high school inspirational fable and the Mickey Rooney-and-Judy Garland backstager - to such giddily engaging heights that they seem newly minted. If you're seeking a follow-up to Sarah Jones' brilliant "Bridge & Tunnel," this is it.

Here's another multicharacter solo show that shines a warm, welcome light on the city's margins - in this case, not immigrants but the minority students at the fictional Malcolm X High in the Bronx. It's here that the optimistic Sun, a struggling actress, comes for a six-week stint as a "teaching artist" to direct a theatrical production with an unruly 10th-grade class of misfits.

Of course, they'll have something to teach her, too: about their good humor and resilience despite crushing poverty, parental neglect, gang violence, and, most damning, the self-fulfilling curse of low expectations.

The title's ellipses allude to more than just the cruel irony of the Bush administration's educational slogan, which is daily proven wrong (many children are indeed "left behind"); Sun sees the problem more widely, as the systematic abandonment of several generations of America's permanent underclass. As the show's kindly narrator, an aged janitor, points out, new federal standards of "accountability" aren't going to fix that hole in the ceiling. "Now, who's accountable for that?" he wonders.

Not to worry: "No Child ... " is no sermon. Sun's young charges, amped up on Red Bull and blissfully unaccustomed to raising their hand before speaking, try her patience mightily, and entertainingly. When she informs her class - in the sharp, bright tones of a pedagogue who neither panders nor condescends - that they'll be performing "Our Country's Good," Timberlake Wertenbaker's contemporary classic, the class' alpha male, Jerome, doesn't miss a beat: "Yo, Justin Timberlake done wrote himself a play."

Under Hal Brooks' expert direction, the aptly named Sun doesn't just shine, she blazes. She delineates her cast in dizzying real-time interactions. The quick-cut sampler of the final performance is a bravura crowd-pleaser. Indeed, the show is so well built that it seems only to slow down and sink in when Sun is physically out of breath; the effect is of a sprinter stopping short to realize this race is going to be a long haul.

"They need a miracle, like, everyday," she says of the school's underserved constituents at one point, overwhelmed at the burden. She shouldn't sell herself, or the students, short. "No Child ... " does not make the case that theater, let alone school, can repair a frayed social fabric by itself. But, in its idealized and inspiring way, it gives us hope that those everyday miracles do make a difference.

No Child ...
Written by Nilaja Sun. Directed by Hal Brooks. Barrow Street Theatre, 27 Barrow St. at Seventh Avenue, Manhattan. Open-ended run. $45. 212-239-6200. Seen Friday.

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