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‘No Child...’ rings true with students, parents alike

Victoria Cheng | 7/30/2009, 5:56 a.m.

CAMBRIDGE — These days, Nilaja Sun is riding high.

The New York City-based actor, writer and teacher just returned from Berlin, where she recently wrapped filming for her scenes in “The International,” a movie starring Clive Owen and Naomi Watts slated for release next year.

But as she thought about bringing her critically acclaimed one-woman play “No Child…” to Greater Boston audiences at the American Repertory Theatre (ART) in Cambridge, Sun admits she proceeded carefully.

“Boston is the only city where I’ve literally told everyone, ‘I’m going to Boston,’ and all the African Americans that I’ve said that to have been like, ‘Good luck!’” she says, affecting a cautionary tone.

Sun based “No Child…,” which opens a month-long run tomorrow, on her nine years of experience working in inner-city high schools and correctional facilities. The play depicts a teacher leading students through a six-week long drama workshop where “everything goes right and everything goes wrong.”

In a whirlwind 90-minute performance, Sun plays all of the work’s 20-odd characters, from the teacher to the students to the school security guard and janitor. Almost all of the characters are either African American or Latino.

“I never bring up anything race-wise, but you do get a sense that there is only one white teacher in the school, one white person in the play,” she explains. “My focus is talking to the audience about the school system more than anything else, but I think it is quite obvious that we’re talking about young black and young Latino kids.”

A YouTube clip of the play posted online by ART opens with Sun as a slightly high-strung teacher telling her class they will be studying a work by a British playwright entitled “Our Country’s Good.”

Sun’s face and posture immediately morph into that of a second character, a skeptical and outspoken student: “Ewww! Is this, like, patriotism?!” she demands, scrunching her face and placing a hand on her hip.

Within the first two minutes of “No Child…,” Sun transforms from a teacher struggling to get her students’ attention to four different brash teenagers questioning the choice of the play based on its title, its author (Timberlake Wertenbaker, whose name invokes another Timberlake of greater cultural currency) and its content (“Yo, this some white s***! Ain’t this illegal to teach this white s*** no more?”).

“I know a lot of people think about inner-city schools and high-impact schools as humorless places, but in fact the kids are very, very funny — hilarious — and I wanted to add that, too,” Sun says.

Sun is careful to note that the warnings she has heard about Boston’s skewed racial dynamics “sound like a little bit of prejudice from people outside of Boston.” But ART Acting Artistic Director Gideon Lester bluntly lends credence to the talk: “The fact that Boston remains a fairly segregated city is depressing,” he says.

Performances of the play in Chicago and New York City have had “a really galvanizing effect and managed to bring different parts of the community together and attracted a really diverse audience,” Lester says, adding that Sun “turns the theater into a place where we can take a long, hard look at one of the most difficult subjects we face at the moment, which is how we educate our kids.”

“No Child…,” with its deliberate ellipses in the title — a nod to the federal legislation of a similar name — tackles the difficult and often-ignored subject of public education in an open, endearing and “absolutely straight-forward” way, according to Lester.

It was with these considerations in mind that Sun and Lester jumped at the opportunity to bring the work to Boston.

Lester, who expressed hope that “No Child…” will “reach into neighborhoods of Boston that don’t traditionally go to the theater in Cambridge,” explains that Sun will conduct 90-minute workshops with students and teachers at local public high schools during the show’s month-long run.

ART has also introduced a new initiative in partnership with Harvard University’s Office of Community Affairs to offer heavily subsidized tickets to high school students and families who want to see the show.

Sun says the challenge of attracting a diverse audience is not unique to Boston.

“I think that’s the case with every theater I go to, that I will have to try to search for the black audiences,” she says.

In spite of the play’s success, Sun remains fascinated by the warm welcome it has received — both critically, winning Obie and Outer Critics Circle awards, and with audiences at large.

“This tiny little piece that I created that I really didn’t think much was going to come out of it … now, I’m being asked and requested to take it all over the country and people are actually caring about what’s going on,” she says, her voice full of wonder.

Sun says the play, which she describes as “more gritty, more edgy,” strikes a chord with teachers, students and families alike because “it’s an honest portrayal of our inner-city schools.”

“African Americans who have come to see the show from lower- to middle-income families love the show,” she says.

Their most common response? “‘Thank you so much for telling the truth.’”