Luckier Than They Realize

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The New York Sun

“Ain’t this illegal to teach this white sh— no more?”

The speaker is Jerome, a black 10th-grader at Malcolm X High School in the Bronx. The material in question is, in fact, written by a white person. The question is being posed to Nilaja Sun, a half-black, half-Puerto Rican drama teacher who has signed on to direct Jerome and his reluctant classmates in a production of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s “Our Country’s Good.”

Jerome is hardly the only student with something to say about Nilaja and her well-intentioned efforts, which make up the bulk of her one-woman show “No Child …” After an acclaimed limited run this spring, this deeply rewarding if slightly unfocused tribute to innercity teachers has moved to the Barrow Street Theatre for an open run. Here’s to a long stay for Jerome, Shondrika, Kaswan, and the rest of their misfit class, all brought to life by an empathic and seemingly inexhaustible Ms. Sun (who worked with at-risk New York City teenagers in real life for eight years).

It quickly becomes clear that Nilaja will need every ounce of that energy to survive her six weeks at Malcolm X. The students’ regular teacher, Ms.Tam, can’t get through five minutes of class without some student shouting “Pork fried rice!” at her and/or punching a classmate. Ms. Tam is both in awe of Nilaja’s rapport with the students and resigned to the inevitable failure of the project.

To be honest, Nilaja does appear to have set the bar pretty high. “Our Country’s Good,” a 1991 Broadway play set in 18th-century Australia (where convicts performed George Farquhar’s Restoration comedy “The Recruiting Officer” for their masters), would be a reach for most Equity companies, let alone a group of kids in an underperforming Bronx high school.

Nilaja, for her part, questions selecting a piece about convicts for her young cast, all of whom are black or Latino. “Why couldn’t I choose a play about kings and queens in Africa or the triumphs of the Taino Indian?” she asks herself, as if these were the only alternatives. (For an equally illuminating look at a similar situation, check out the 2002 film “OT: Our Town,” in which a South Central Los Angeles high school tackles Thornton Wilder’s rural classic.)

Perhaps because of its relative obscurity, Ms. Sun devotes little stage time to actual snippets of the play.(Unless I’m mistaken, not a syllable of the Farquhar is spoken in “No Child….”) Very rarely do we see the students being affected in any way by the actual production they’ve undertaken; it’s the process itself, the trust inherent in being handed even a seemingly inaccessible work of art, that takes root in their aggressively guarded, alltoo-fragile psyches.

Ms. Sun is at her best when she’s giving life to the classroom, with its formless aggression, hormonal agitation, and all-around chaos ricocheting off every wall. My personal favorites among the dozen-plus students include the megacaffeinated Brian, who literally falls out of his chair from excitement; and Xiomara, who can’t be bothered to clear her throat before speaking. (They actually bring to mind Russell and Mushmouth, two members of another ramshackle school clique brought to life by another skilled mimic, Bill Cosby.) Ms. Sun also does a fine job with the long-suffering Ms.Tam and an ill-tempered Caribbean security guard who begrudgingly acknowledges the students’ initiative.

Unfortunately, not every character feels this fresh.The occasional first-person snippets feel forced, and far too much of “No Child…” is narrated by Baron, a stereotypically wise old janitor. Perhaps these scenes serve as a sort of cool-down period for Ms. Sun, a chance to focus on just one character instead of seven at a time, but kindly old Baron doesn’t say anything we haven’t heard in a dozen other plays and movies.(Care to guess what occupation he’s talking about when he pays homage to “the most underpaid, underappreciated, underpaid job in this crazy universe”?) Not even director Hal Brooks, who otherwise does an exemplary job of helping Ms. Sun differentiate among her 30 or so characters, is of much help in these scenes.

The narrative arc leading up to showtime follows a similarly predictable path, from the introvert blossoming onstage to the last-minute pitfalls to the parent arriving at the last minute. Ms. Sun does deserve credit, though, for keeping the “success” of her project scaled to a realistic level. The real triumph here is the enormous impact Nilaja’s confidence has on these kids, and Ms. Sun demonstrates their gratitude with the fervor of someone who has achieved something close to grace in the process.

This group of students are perhaps luckier than they realize to have met Nilaja Sun, and I suspect the inverse is also true. Nearly as lucky are the “No Child …” audiences who all now get to meet them.


If your tastes run less toward Restoration comedy and more toward “Bring Back Birdie” (that would be the infamous four-performance sequel to “Bye Bye Birdie”), I’d like to bring to your attention “[title of show],” another spring off-Broadway hit putting down roots for the summer. Like “No Child …,” this irresistible meta-musical is a show about putting on a show. And like Ms. Sun’s rowdy budding thespians, “[title]” costars Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen have a naughty streak.

But rather than train their vitriol on beleaguered teachers and “Dumb-inican” classmates, Messrs. Bell and Bowen go after the likes of Betty Buckley (“a hot box of crazy”) and “Brooklyn: The Musical.” Yes, these playmakers are show queens, collectors of musical-theater arcana not unlike the chair-bound narrator of “The Drowsy Chaperone.”

But rather than guide audiences through a (fake) old musical, as in “Chaperone,” the “[title of show]” duo responded to a challenge — submit an entirely new work to the 2004 New York Musical Theatre Festival in just three weeks — by writing and starring in a musical about their efforts to write and star in a musical in three weeks.

As the bookwriter, Mr. Bell has the difficult task of translating the meandering act of collaboration, complete with false starts and ample procrastination, into a compelling, forwardmoving script. Nestled within the nifty Pirandellian tricks, is a lovely scene for one of his two female co-stars, the talented Heidi Blickenstaff, about the joys of being there at the inception of something new:

Do you know, I’ve been in this business since I was 7 and this is the first role I’ve ever originated? … Most of the time I’m either an understudy or a replacement, but for once I don’t have to fit the mold. I am the mold.

To some degree, the off-Broadway success of the show has obviated much of the story’s suspense: It’s a safe bet at this point that our heroes will finish the piece; otherwise, we’d be home listening to our bootleg recordings of “Carrie” instead of sitting in the Vineyard. And the writers probably didn’t compromise their vision too much along the way; otherwise, they’d be home listening to their bootlegs instead of acting at the Vineyard.

Luckily, the show’s charms go well beyond any smirky insider gags. (Although there are no shortage of smirky insider gags, including a series of answering-machine messages by actual Broadway divas — a list that has grown by one since the spring run.) Mr. Bowen’s lyrics are wise and warm, and his pop-burnished melodies bring to mind a smoother Jason Robert Brown. Their contributions mesh as seamlessly as their tenor singing voices, thanks in no small part to Michael Beresse’s crystalline direction, and Mr. Bell in particular mines priceless humor out of the show’s faux spontaneity.

With just one or two exceptions (apologizing for a dopey dream sequence is fine, but cutting it would be even better), every scene in “[title of show]” hums with a wicked and deeply felt respect for the form and everyone toiling away at it. If it’s done with enough wit and a heartfelt dose of tough love, demolishing the mold can result in a bawdy, audacious, and surprisingly touching new mold.

“No Child …” open run (27 Barrow Street at Seventh Avenue, 212-239-6200). “[title of show]” until September 9 (108 E. 15th Street, between Fourth Avenue and Irving Place, 212-279-4200).

The New York Sun

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