By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"Play should make you understand something new," says a character in Nilaja Sun's brief, beautiful play, No Child. Good plays can enlighten. Bad plays can, too, even if it's only teaching you something about remaining politely silent and relatively still in a small, hard seat for a couple of hours.
No Child, a one-hour one-act, is the rare short play so good you'll wish it were longer. Amphibian Stage's production at the Fort Worth Arts Center (where the seats are fine) is worth seeing twice. First, for the play itself: a bitterly funny drop-in to the worst class at the most rundown public high school in the Bronx, and the story of how students and teacher connect over a six-week drama workshop. A second viewing is recommended—bring a teacher friend with you—simply to study in detail the knockout performance by the show's sole actor, Rhianna Mack. She plays all 16 roles in No Child, including the 80-year-old janitor/narrator, an autocratic Russian substitute, a terrified Asian teacher, a Puerto Rican grandmother, a chain-smoking principal and 10th-grade students of many accents, attitudes and literacy levels.
Named for Bush 43's 2001 education makeover that reduced American public school curricula to "teaching to the test," No Child is populated by some of the failures. Like the 18-year-old repeating 10th grade and the pregnant 16-year-old, just two of the kids in the rowdy group Miss Sun is supposed to tame in six weeks as a visiting "teaching artist." The real Miss Sun based her play, which she performed to sell-out houses Off Broadway four years ago, on her experiences as a drama teacher in two New York City high schools. In No Child, she's brand new to (fictional) Malcolm X High, a dilapidated pile of bricks in a blighted urban neighborhood just 18 minutes by subway, as one character wryly observes, from Manhattan's 59th Street and one of America's wealthiest blocks of real estate.
The intrepid, dedicated teacher who magically makes angels of a class of listless, profane goof-offs is a familiar trope from movies and stage plays. We've learned life-affirming lessons from Mr. Chips, Miss Brodie and Mr. Holland. With Miss Sun, however, we see a teacher who sticks with her troubled charges for other than purely idealistic reasons. She's an unemployed actress, broke, behind in her rent and in hock to the IRS. Her level of desperation is at a more critical point than some of her students'. In short, she needs the job.
And what show does she want them to study, rehearse and perform? Timberlake Wertenbaker's challenging script Our Country's Good, about 18th century Australian convicts who put on a Restoration comedy for the guards in their penal colony. No Child's play within a play within a play underscores chilling similarities between bleak prison conditions in centuries past and the environment of a modern public high school. After waking up in apartments with barred windows, these kids get to school only to face "two metal-detecting machines, five school guards, two armed police officers and seven metal-detecting wands." The school building, with its falling ceilings and rotting walls, sounds as bad as The Tombs. "All the bathrooms on the third floor, dey broke," says the old janitor who narrates the play. "Now who's accountable for dat?"
No one, apparently. The students in the play stand in for all those public school troublemakers driven to bad behavior by boredom, parental neglect and the sense that the bean-counting, test-score-pimping suits who run the education system would prefer that they didn't show up at all. Miss Sun almost cracks from the pressure of trying to get them jazzed about theater. "I came to teaching to touch lives and educate and be this enchanting artist in the classroom," she says, "and I have done nothing but lose 10 pounds in a month and develop a disgusting smoking habit. These kids need something much greater than anything I can give them. They need a miracle—and they need a miracle, like, every day."
Miracles do happen in No Child. The boy too shy to read aloud finds his voice. The girl who rolls her eyes at everything Miss Sun asks of her eventually comes around. The play gets on its feet and some parents even come see it. And Miss Sun sees in the kids what every teacher craves: that moment when the light goes on in their eyes and not only do they get it, they want more.
The luminous tour de force by Rhianna Mack in this show directed by René Moreno is its own brilliant lesson in the transformative power of live theater. Without costume changes or props, she transforms herself from character to character with split-second timing, using her lithe body and expressive face to create the silhouettes and identifying gestures of all the grown-ups and kids. In some of the play's short vignettes, she carries on overlapping conversations among students with such vocal dexterity it's like a new form of ventriloquism.
And here's another thing to admire about Ms. Mack. At the Saturday night performance reviewed, there were a total of eight people in the audience and that included a critic and four ushers. In front of all those empty seats, Mack did No Child as if there were a full house. Of all the shows running in DFW right now, this is the one that needs and deserves SRO support. Don't let it get left behind.