No Child

Nilaja Sun
Barrow Street Theatre, New York

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In theory at least, America's "No Child Left Behind Act" sounds wonderful: a commitment by Government that, however poor, children should receive the best education possible.

However, this kind of thing always seems to backfire and there may be a fear that without adequate funding, the act might actually lead to a consistently inadequate provision, as well as antagonising those working within the system.

Nilaja Sun's one-woman show appears to draw heavily from her own experiences in the New York Education system as a teaching artiste.

It is set in the terrifying Malcolm X High School in the Bronx, which Miss Sun personally peoples with everyone from the janitor and security guard to the teachers and a whole classful of pupils.

What starts as an indictment of a system that requires armed security guards and x-ray scanners to check up on teenagers soon becomes something much more heart-warming. No Child is a kind of underclass re-working of Dead Poets Society with the writer/performer excelling in her characterisations, so that by the end of the evening, we feel as if we know so many of these people like friends.

The teaching artiste has been recruited to try and take the worst tenth-graders, typically 16 year olds and, if nothing else, keep them off the murderous streets for a few hours but achieves so much more. In fact, by the end there are three deaths, two of youngsters in gang warfare.

The educational department's idea is to get the pupils involved in a piece of community theatre. Cleverly the teacher chooses Our Country's Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker with its plot about convicts in Australia performing Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer. The parallels with the ghetto-imprisoned teens of New York today are then brought out effectively as the kids begin to get into the experience following some initial hiccups.

While the teachers and support staff are well depicted, it is with the academically hopeless but eventually committed children that Miss Sun scores her greatest success. For the first (and in some cases last) time in their lives, many of these pupils are experiencing responsibility and pride.

This is a tremendous solo show that allows a performer to show off her acting talents, while her audience learns about education today at the sharp end but best of all enjoys itself as the children blossom. The visitors were in no doubt about the quality of this heart-warming experience as the exhausted Nilaja Sun received a rapturous standing ovation.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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