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Sun casts deft portrait of inner-city students

Victoria Cheng | 7/29/2009, 9:16 a.m.

CAMBRIDGE — Every underdog can become a champion, every pauper a prince; this, we are told, is the American way. But for every story of success, there exists another tale, less well known and less often told, about individuals born beyond the margins of history who do not find their way in.

In “No Child…,” a one-woman, 85-minute play about a class of inner-city high school students putting on a play of their own, New York actor and writer Nilaja Sun tackles the educational, emotional and moral consequences of living life in the shadows.

These shadows are cast primarily by an education system that considers inner-city students “delinquent — no, academically and emotionally challenged — youth,” says the school janitor, a stoop-shouldered Sun pushing an invisible mop.

However, as Sun reveals through a gallery of characters including students, teachers, administrators and security guards — all of whom she plays with deft changes of accent, expression and posture — life in inner-city schools is much more intimate and complex than the picture conveyed by stereotypes alone.

The students don’t always make it to class, but sometimes that is because the security guard deemed their earrings and belts too hot for the metal detector and sent them home. Their parents don’t always attend parent-teacher meetings or school functions, but that may be because a shy grandparent not yet fluent in English heads the household and is herself working too many hours to even answer the phone at home.

Sun does not spend much time editorializing on the issues at hand. Instead, she uses the plot — a well-educated African American teacher attempts to interest disenchanted 10th-grade students in a play about Australian convicts — as her canvas. She paints vivid scenes of students struggling with their lines (one ambitious young woman stumbles over the pronunciation of “innate”) and of teachers struggling to connect with their charges (“Ryan, put down the Red Bull,” one particularly beleaguered teacher pleads). Throughout, Sun reveals the humor, honesty and vulnerability of which all teenagers are so eminently capable and captures the energy and persistence required of those who teach.

Staged at the American Repertory Theatre (ART) and directed by Hal Brooks, the production’s physical aspects are basic. Sun, who remains in front of the audience the entire time, works with a backdrop that consists of three angular plastic chairs and a wall painted the clinical, muted green that is the hallmark of high schools across the country.

Sun herself fills the space with the force of the characters she creates, each transformation emerging seamlessly from a brief pause in movement, a quick dimming of the lights or an agile change of direction. She portrays adults with assurance, stalking in indignant circles as a power-hungry school security guard and raising her voice to a pinched whine as a cowed English teacher.

As the autobiographical Ms. Sun, she rants against a school system that is “not teaching kids to be leaders,” but rather “getting them ready to go to jail,” adding in a confessional tone that she sometimes wonders why she didn’t accept a job offer to teach “white kids in Connecticut,” where her greatest worries would be about “soccer moms, bulimia and people asking me how I wash my hair.”

The audience at one recent performance — comprised mostly of donors and regular ART patrons, who were also treated to sumptuous receptions before and after the performance — laughed heartily at the latter line, perhaps with a twinge of self-recognition.

It is as the rambunctious students that Sun draws both the most laughs and the most tears. As good-natured Coca, she addresses teen pregnancy with naïve honesty: “Don’t cry, Ms. Sun. Why does everybody cry when I say I’m pregnant?” As Jerome, the class ringleader, she walks with arms akimbo as if to take up more space, and as the hyperactive Ryan, she bobs up and down spouting non-sequiturs about different kinds of fried rice.

Among the new faces that teachers meet at the beginning of every school year are those they never forget: the host of whip-smart but disenfranchised students who just happen to get away. Sun uses the class of 10th-grade students to bring this educational archetype to life and she does so with devastating emotional pull.

“Sometimes,” the school janitor observes, “even the brightest slip through the cracks.”

Coming in the final moments of the play, this comment resounds as a warning and a call to action, one demanding that the pages of history include not only those fortunate enough to triumph over adversity, but also those who try at all.

“No Child…” runs through Dec. 23 at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge. Tickets range from $39-$79, with discounts available for students, seniors and groups of 10 or more. For show times and tickets, call 617-574-8300 or visit www.amrep.org/nochild.