Nilaja Sun's 'No Child': In a Class by Itself

(Carol Rosegg - Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company)
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By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, January 26, 2008

ABronx high school classroom explodes into chaos time and again in Nilaja Sun's remarkable, often riotously funny solo show "No Child . . . ," and if you think you know how such unruly episodes play out, think again.

An indomitable, even gleeful spirit governs this performance at Woolly Mammoth, which Sun and director Hal Brooks buffed to a high shine in an acclaimed off-Broadway run. Noise and rude back talk are lightning-fast as the lithe, chameleonic Sun peoples the stage for 65 minutes with a crew of fractious but fundamentally lovable characters.

The chest-beating teenage rebellion provokes a tangle of reactions in this deceptively rich play, from the unexpectedly hilarious deer-in-the-headlights helplessness of a new English teacher to sober considerations of what to do with such defiant, strutting youth. Sun has been on the front lines as a teaching artist, and you can tell she's fought the fight and maybe even considered giving up.

She enters the class as herself, more or less: the smiling Miss Sun, hired to direct these 10th-graders in a play. ("Aw, hell no" is the general reaction.) She chooses Timberlake Wertenbaker's "Our Country's Good," which prompts misguided queries about Justin Timberlake, just as "thespian" inevitably becomes "lesbian" as the raucous kids have things their way.

Sun second-guesses her choice of the Wertenbaker drama, because it's about 18th-century Australian prisoners putting on a play: Why reinforce the negatives these students live with daily? One funny vignette of life at this Bronx school, in fact, involves a girl trying to enter the building and being rejected again and again by the beeping metal detector: too much bling. Like much of "No Child . . . ," the scene crackles with comic timing while delivering a palpable riptide of unease.

The balance is maybe 70-30 in favor of high-energy comedy, as Sun fearlessly portrays the staff and students of this disordered school. (Woolly is on a peculiarly balanced solo-show roll right now, with Kimberly Gilbert starring in the supernatural, rural-themed "The K of D" down the hall.) The principal is a predictably stern crusader, while the custodian who narrates between scenes is a stiff-jointed old man who's been on the job since 1958. It's mesmerizing to see how Sun's flexible face lengthens and creases as she mimics the custodian's great age.

A different kind of transformation occurs with the kids, whose kinetic essences are convincingly channeled by Sun's exuberant performance. No young man's braggadocio is too big for Sun to mimic, nor is a sudden abashed stillness too subtle for her to catch. The classroom's ethnicities and abilities are all over the place, and Sun's achievement is not just that she captures so many distinct voices, backgrounds and personalities (and all in a single plain costume of trousers and blouse). It's that in true classroom fashion, they all seem to clash and clamor at once.

That's the story, really. Unfolding on Narelle Sisson's largely bare, deliberately drab classroom set, "No Child . . . " brings these characters to life with a teacher's affection as the plot follows them through contentious rehearsals ("Put some feeling into it!" is answered with "Why you got to mess up my flow?") toward the climactic performance. Something is learned, for sure, but Sun is enough of a realist not to leave you with the sense that a cure has been found. Trouble still lingers, and it won't leave some of these kids alone.

At 65 minutes, you could find holes in the plot and holes in characterizations; tightly packed as the show is, it's clear that Sun could say much more. This is sketch work, with the people of Malcolm X High School rendered in the quick, bold lines of an extremely confident performer. But sketch work can be brilliant, and Sun's thoughtful, highly entertaining show unequivocally is that.

No Child . . . , written and performed by Nilaja Sun. Directed by Hal Brooks. Lighting design, Mark Barton; costume design, Jessica Gaffney; set adaptation, Daniel Ettinger. Through Feb. 17 at Woolly Mammoth, 641 D St. NW. Call 202-393-3939 or visit

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