Matinee. American Repertory Theatre, Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
No Child . . . Written and performed by Nilaja Sun
The reference in the title is to the law popularly known as “No Child Left Behind,” which has had indifferent success in the United States since its enactment and which some people view as a desperation measure to try to fix what is wrong with public education in this country by setting standards of achievement at various grade levels and at graduation. The gist of the critique is that it forces children to learn how to pass the tests but does not contribute in any meaningful way to their real education.
Nilaja Sun is a “woman of color” — her matter-of-fact term for herself — who has taught in various inner-city schools in the Bronx and elsewhere, as a kind of artist in residence, and who gradually conceived of this one-person show as a way to address an attempt to make contact with difficult, unruly children who nevertheless (she believes) had the potential to make something of their lives. Her strategy to accomplish this ambitious end was to teach her students how to rehearse and perform Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play Our Country’s Good, in which a group of Australian convicts are rehearsing a production of George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer.
Sun takes all the parts, a dozen or more. She is an expert, accomplished mime, with a lower lip and jaw that seem to be made of rubber and can transform her face into masks as varied and plastic as any I have ever seen. The narrative thread has to do with Sun’s own attempts in a Bronx high school to engage with students, draw them out of themselves, and show them how to speak and to understand what they speak, at the same time dealing with the nearly insuperable problems of discipline and absenteeism that routinely plague any efforts at education in these challenging and dispiriting environments.
She accomplishes her artistic goal of dramatizing her pedagogical attempts brilliantly, and she won over this somewhat heterogeneous audience of high school students, teachers, and ART regulars almost immediately. The post-performance discussion revealed some of the facts noted above, and also revealed what other difficulties but also what great responses she has encountered since she wrote down her experiences as a script that she herself would perform. Some audiences, she explained, find her material so foreign that they are unable to comprehend it; one audience member told her that she was doing people a grave disservice by “performing the play in Ebonics” — a comment we found both puzzling and ludicrous. Most audiences, however, have responded as we did, but she told us that we were among the most receptive she has encountered. She is booked for additional performances in Washington DC and elsewhere.
It remains a question of some interest, however, whether the work as performed is to be taken as a specific if oblique response to President Bush’s law, and by extension all governmental efforts to set universal standards in the face of enormously complex and varied local conditions, or as a separate, non-specific work of art. Perhaps it is not an either/or question. It is difficult to think of any other actress performing this work as successfully as Nijala Sun did. She was asked whether each performance was somewhat different and the result of some improvisation: she said it was not and that the script was “fixed,” but she mentioned that she had a contract with Dramatists Play Service, one of the largest contemporary publishers of play scripts, to bring her play out. So the presumption, at least on the part of DPS, is that other actresses might find it negotiable. It may have a somewhat limited life in the theatre, after all. But, as Bernard Shaw said of A Doll’s House, “It will have done more work in the world.”