Bronx cheer: Rachael Holmes as one of the many characters in No Child. . . at Ithaca’s Hangar Theatre.
Stage interpretations of the bond
between teacher and rough-edged students have been generally more
complex than Sun’s narrative. The twist with Child is that one
actor (originally Sun herself, and now played by Rachael Holmes in
Ithaca) portrays every character. Unfortunately, the progression of
Sun’s classroom tenure is fairly familiar and the landmarks and land
mines seem to be pretty regularly spaced throughout the
At Malcolm X High School, Sun finds
herself faced with a classroom full of academically and emotionally
challenged kids. As material, Sun chooses Our Country’s Good,
Timberlake Wertenbaker’s drama about Australian convict settlers
putting on a play. She is almost immediately regretful of her choice.
After all, these kids see themselves as inmates in a kind of junior
prison, warming up for the real thing. Their perceptions are reinforced
by the security guard who proudly catalogs the building’s Byzantine and
humiliating entry procedure. Still, she soldiers on.
It’s not that we don’t believe her
story. Teachers and teaching artists have experienced the syndrome of
doubt, tragedy and triumph attendant to working with poverty-hardened
kids since the beginnings of the public school system. Perhaps Sun is
too close to her story to be able to clearly delineate its inherent
drama, or perhaps she felt bound by the facts of her own experience to
take the insightful final leap. Yet the production works, thanks to its
unique structure—a play within a play within a play—and Holmes’
virtuoso performance as Sun.
Under Wendy Dann’s sensitive direction,
the talented Holmes zaps from one character to the next, very nearly
convincing us that she is the ringmaster of a stage full of actors.
Although the characters occasionally veer into cartoon territory (the
multinational parade of substitute teachers is a case in point),
ironically, the portrayal of her students, with their outsized
mannerisms and challenging postures, are very familiar to urban
As the beleaguered Nilaja Sun, Holmes
can melt an audience’s heart with a smile, at one point kittenishly
convincing her landlord to give her more time for the rent, the next
moment winning over, losing, then winning again—just a little bit too
easily—a gaggle of teenagers that prides itself on being the worst
class in the school. Especially effective is Holmes’ portrayal of
Baron, the custodian who prowls the stage dispensing truths as a sort
of narrator/Greek chorus.
Kathryn Kawecki’s effective and
atmospheric set emphasizes the primal qualities of theater. While on
the surface an amusing replica of a crumbling inner-city school
building, it also carries a metaphorical weight, resembling the
classical Greek theater with three doors leading to a raised central
Nilaja Sun doesn’t directly confront the
ramifications and frustrations of Bush-era education hinted at in the
title. Instead, her brief tale suggests that the challenges of urban
education can be better met through the arts than through incessant
formulaic testing. At the tail end of the school year, Hangar’s
thoroughly entertaining production of No Child. . . provides a reminder that new, more hopeful beginnings are possible.
This production runs through Saturday, June 28. See Times Table for information.