Out-of-work actors commonly write one-person shows, often
autobiographical, for themselves. The text should be filled with
routines and devices that the performer is especially good at. The
fringe festivals in New York City and Edinburgh are rife with them.
Nilaja Sun, before she was hired as a teaching artist at Malcolm X
High School in the Bronx, was such an actor. Before she was able to tell
what happened during her assignment, she was unmistakably adept at
Chinese and Russian accents as well as a variety of verbal styles from
the African-American street. She must be an excellent mime as well,
conjuring up the bodyset of an aged, male janitor, Jackson Baron
Copeford the Third, one of the most important of the 16 characters in
So let’s start with some applause for Rochester’s Reenah L. Golden,
who conjures up somebody else’s bag of tricks. It’s like being able to
wear a stranger’s dental plate.
Good as janitor Jackson is, part narrator, part Greek chorus, the
most important character is the self-aware playwright herself. We learn
at the beginning that she’s behind in her rent and is a careless manager
of her own finances. Although African-American (actress Golden sports
long dreadlock-like braids), playwright Sun’s world is closer to that of
professional class whites. In some of No Child’s most
affecting moments, she examines her own motivation and wonders whether
she’d really rather be in Connecticut where student problems ran to
issues like bulimia. The students at Malcolm X High learn a lot in six
weeks, but it is playwright Sun who spans the greatest arc.
Sun brings a sophisticated knowledge of dramatic literature to
Malcolm X, and she mocks the idea that the 10th graders should do
Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, the chestnut of African-American drama. Instead she chooses an Australian play, Our Country’s Good by
Timberlake Wertenberger, a woman. Knowing something about the item
helps, and we’ve had two excellent productions locally, at Le Moyne
College (1995, directed by William Morris) and at Syracuse University
Drama Department (1996, directed by Malcolm Ingram).
The white faces on the characters in Our Country’s Good, Sun
recognizes, are irrelevant. What counts is that the Australian play
depicts an episode very much like what Sun is doing. Wertenberger’s work
deals with the first convict-settlers of Australia in 1788, the
rejected dregs of English society that the Mother Country had given up
on; it’s not a whole lot different from black and Hispanic slum kids
that consider themselves to be the worst class in a distressed school.
Even more is happening in Sun’s zigzag line of vision. Wertenberger’s Our Country’s Good (note the pun in the title) is also about the play the convicts are performing, George Farquar’s stylish comedy The Recruiting Officer. What
results sounds like a drama by René Magritte: students rehearse a play
about convicts rehearsing a play about a nearly forgotten Restoration
comedy. This post-modernist bracketing is what raises No Child . . . above the ingratiating optimism of, say, Dangerous Minds. Emotion here is harder won.
To return to Sun’s central argument, art liberates the students from
their shackles as other subjects, such as history or algebra, do not,
even if it is not exactly a commercial skill. That’s because students
put themselves into it. At first students reject Sun’s approaches to
them just as profanely as they would any other lesson imposed upon them,
whether it be on the use of the semicolon or the structure of a cell.
In some ways Sun has an even harder time than other teachers because
she’s trying to get them not only to grasp but to perform.
Sun’s instructions to the students and their responses allow actress
Reenah L. Golden some of her best moments. Shondrika’s flamboyance and
in-your-face attitude can be harnessed for a role, so that she puts
herself into her performance. Chris, paralyzed by stage fright, gets the
courage to rise to the front, offstage as well as on. And tongue-tied
Phillip, perhaps Sun’s most affecting character, is forced to open his
mouth. Never a troublemaker, he’s been sulking in the back of the class,
hoping not to be called on and thus perhaps passing through the system
unmarked by any learning at all. Golden has a great bit in which
Phillip’s lower lip curls over, seemingly to cover any ability to speak.
When Sun cajoles him, coaxes him, soothes him and forces him to speak
he does find that he has a voice.
In some ways Sun is also teaching a bourgeois skill as well as an
artistic one. Putting on the play is a lesson in the rewards of hard
work, discipline and rehearsal. Then again, janitor Jackson informs us
that the play has led to unimaginable personal triumphs after
If there is a flaw in No Child . . . it’s that success is a
bit too easy. Sun’s play is only about 80 minutes, and there is plenty
of conflict to overcome in the first half. But consider that when Henry
Higgins has more of a struggle to get Eliza Doolittle to pronounce
“rain” in standard English, and when she achieves it we have cause for
show-stopping celebration (more in My Fair Lady than in Pygmalion).
Which leads us back to Reenah L.Golden’s abilities and Tim Bond’s
crisp direction and what the play finally tells us: how much breadth,
depth and richness can be known through performances, just one player
and a chair.
This production runs through Oct. 10. See Times Table for information.