Review: `No Child…’

Opened May 12, 2008 on Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage

Nilaja Sun in her dynamic, moving solo show No Child… at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
Photos by Carol Rosegg

Sun shines in extraordinary solo show
four stars An apple for the teacher

Nilaja Sun has been performing her solo show No Child… off and on for two years now, but you wouldn’t know that from the incredibly fresh energy she brings to it.

The show, an autobiographical tale of a teaching artist bringing theater to a rough Bronx public school, premiered at New York’s Epic Theatre Center almost exactly two years ago. Then came a rush of awards – an Obie, a Lucille Lortel, an Outer Critics Circle Award, a U.S. Comedy Arts Festival Award, a Theater World Award – all of which were well deserved.

The thing about Sun’s show – aside from the incredible talent she displays that conjures up the excitement of watching a young Whoopi Goldberg or Lily Tomlin or Sarah Jones – is that it ends up being the best possible kind of activist theater.

Using humor, theatricality and some of the most precise and thrilling physical stage work I’ve ever seen, Sun becomes the entire adult and student population at Malcolm X High School. Well, OK, not the entire school but a portion of the administration and one unruly 10th grade English class. I lost track of how many roles she plays exactly, but it’s well more than a dozen, and each one is distinct.

Working with director Hal Brooks, Sun speeds through her tale in nearly 70 minutes. The brevity of the story shortchanges the drama somewhat – we’d be happy to spend more time with Sun and her “cast” – and lends an “Afterschool Special” vibe to what should be more realistic.

But Sun’s message comes through quite distinctly: we are shortchanging public school students and, to paraphrase Sun, we are preparing them more to be inmates than to be leaders.

Our narrator is an African-American janitor who has been at the school for nearly 50 years. Reminiscent of the Stage Manager in Our Town, the janitor sets the stage for us (the tiled hallways of the school nicely evoked in the set by Narelle Sissons and Sibyl Wickersheimer): this is the classroom of a beleaguered new teacher named Ms. Tam (a former Wall Street high roller who wanted to do something more with her life), who is unable to control her wild students.

Into this unruly den comes Ms. Sun, a “teaching artist” who will spend the next six weeks with the students working on a play – analyzing, rehearsing and performing. And no, Ms. Sun says, they will be doing neither A Raisin in the Sun nor West Side Story. They will be performing Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good, which is about 18th-century Australian convicts performing a play within the play.

It’s a brilliant choice of play because there’s so much in it that celebrates the power of theater at its most elemental (and Berkeley Rep staged the play on this same stage in 1990 – my first-ever Berkeley Rep show). In addition to making cogent points about the failure of the current administrations No Child Left Behind test-focused approach to public education, she also gets to demonstrate how important the arts – especially theater – are to the development of young people.

The students Ms. Sun is working with – the sassy Shadrika, the tough kingpin Jerome, the hyper Hispanic Jose, the nerdy Chris, the tongue-tied Chris and so on – all come to life as they rehearse the play and prepare for their one-night-only performance. Real life (and mortality) interferes, but the show must go on. “These kids need a miracle,” a nearly depleted Ms. Sun says. “They need a miracle, like, every day.”

Ms. Sun nearly quits, and in so doing, unleashes the play’s most vociferous plea to respect, properly train and adequately compensate teachers, who have the world’s toughest job. No argument there.

More than just entertaining, No Child… is inspiring. You exit the theater vibrating at Sun’s frequency, which is amazingly high, and you want to channel that energy into making life better for students who, used to being given up on, are given a chance to become fully themselves.

No Child… continues through June 11 on the Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $27-$69. Call 510-647-2949 or visit for information.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *