Remember the Inner City? Nilaja Sun’s Show of the Year

I couldn’t be happier to report that No Child … , Nilaja Sun’s one-woman show at the Beckett Theatre—which she also wrote—is an unexpected, superb achievement. If I say you should rush to see it, will you believe me?

Ms. Sun’s gloriously uncynical gem reaches greatness. It tells us things about life that we only think we know, and it tells us about the power of theater and idealism that we take for granted. In the end, it touches all hearts.

Consider its opening moments—for perhaps without even being aware of it, Ms. Sun is taking a chance. What do we first see when the curtain goes up? Ms. Sun, who is half-black, half–Puerto Rican, is a slight, vital woman dressed simply in a white shirt and gray pants. (There will be no costume changes—no laborious donning of various jackets and hats and wigs to represent different characters, thank God.) She enters as an old janitor at Malcolm X High School in the Bronx.

“Hear that?” the janitor, Jackson Baron Copeford III, says to us intently. “Silence …. Beautiful silence, pure silence.” It was astonishing to me! In this most unsilent city, Ms. Sun had compelled us to consider the sound of silence. Immediate good humor follows (which comes naturally to the performer): “The kind of silence that only comes from spending years in the back woods. We ain’t in the back woods …. ”

We’re in the Bronx, where no child is left behind—where we’ll learn that no child expects anything much out of life except to drop out, get pregnant, get shot or go to jail. The opening scene that begins in silence ends just as confidently with a command that comes close to a reprimand. “Now I know what you’re thinking,” the janitor says to us (and rightly!). “Oh, Baron. I know what’s happening in the public schools. I watch Eyewitness News.

“What I got to say that?” the likeable janitor, our narrator, goes on. “HUSH! You don’t know unless you been inside the schools on a day-to-day basis. HUSH! You don’t know unless you been a teacher, administrator, student or custodial staff. HUSH! Cuz you could learn a little sometin’.”

From silence to hush! “Here’s lesson No. 1,” concludes the janitor. “Take the 6 train, in 18 minutes, you can go from 59th Street, the richest Congressional district in the nation, all the way up to Brook Avenue in the Bronx, where the Malcolm X High is, the second-poorest district in the nation. In only 18 minutes!” We’re fixed with burning eyes: HUSH!

From that moment, I was hooked. There was no choice! Though I resist earnest monologues—who in their right mind doesn’t?—this was very different. The inspired Ms. Sun shakes us, firstly, out of our everyday comforts. But she isn’t earnest and she isn’t preachy. She is, in fact, terribly funny. For one memorable thing, her dazzling comic gift of transforming instantly into the essence of someone else is uncanny and effortless.

To compare her to Sarah Jones of the admired, much too sweet love letter to multicultural New York, Bridge & Tunnel, would be unfair, I regret to say, to the sentimental Ms. Jones. Ms. Sun is in another league of her own, in which she raises the tattered banner of faith in the redemptive power of theater itself, even in the wasteland.

She is both a schoolteacher and an actress, and No Child … is based on her quixotic eight years of teaching drama to 10th graders in the city’s roughest public schools. “Thespian!” she announces proudly to her disinterested class (who naturally hear the word as “lesbian”). “Thespian! It means actor, citizen, lover of all things great …. ”

We’re also watching a play within a play. In Ms. Sun’s Bronx school of metal-detecting machines, of security guards and cops patrolling with guns, she has given herself an impossible task in search of the miraculous. She wants to get her class to perform Timberlake Wertenbaker’s 18th-century metaphor of prison life, Our Country’s Good.

“The theatre is an expression of civilization,” go some lines quoted from Wertenbaker’s memorable play. “We belong to a great country which has spawned great playwrights …. ”

“Sometimes,” Ms. Sun confesses amusingly as she sinks exhausted in despair, “I dream of going to Connecticut and teaching the rich white kids there. All I’d have to battle is soccer moms. Bulimia, and everyone asking me how I wash my hair. But, I chose to teach in my city, this city that raised me …. ”

No Child … is about the difference a single human being can make in the kingdom of the damned. No child left behind? Not while Nilaja Sun is around. Her show has been blessed with the contribution of a fine director, Hal Brooks (of last year’s successful solo Thom Pain), and it has been produced on Theatre Row by the admirable Epic Theatre Center. Ms. Sun is too honestly realistic to claim a happy end to her staggering work, however.

No work of art in the history of the whole wide beautiful world ever stopped a war. But Ms. Sun has made a priceless contribution just the same. She has offered hope and belief in a better, saner world. Her schoolkids are lucky to have her. So are we.