Originally posted on Onstage NTX.
A solo show is always a challenge, and Nilaja Sun’s No Child, presented by the ever-engaging crew at Amphibian Stage, is an ultra-marathon.
With no props other than a janitor’s broom, and no costume changes, actress Kymbali Craig (taking over from the playwright, who wrote and starred in the original as well as subsequent touring productions) portrays sixteen characters—a fictionalized Sun herself, plus various school staffers, administrators, and students in a reimagined version of the Bronx’s Malcolm X High School. The story is based on the playwright’s own experiences over years of teaching theater in some of the poorest parts of New York City. No Child examines the flaws and failures of our educational system, but also the hope, humor, and talent of the students being, as it were, left behind.
At Malcolm X, Ms. Sun—a struggling actor, behind on the rent and lacking in auditions—takes a position as a “teaching artist” (paid for by a government grant) to teach theater to the school’s self-proclaimed worst class. Deciding to shoot for the stars, Ms. Sun selects Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good as this year’s production, a 1988 play about a group of 18th century Australian convicts putting on a comedy by George Farquhar. And for those keeping count, yes—that’s a play within a play within a play…within a play. No worries, mate.
No Child examines the flaws and failures of our educational system, but also the hope, humor, and talent of the students being, as it were, left behind.
Why this piece, instead of something more After School Special-ish? “Because we’re treated like convicts every day,” muses one student, contemplating their daily march through the school’s metal detectors and past armed guards. On a deeper level, Wertenbaker’s play explores the humanizing influence of theater even on these deemed beyond saving by society, and the changes that can be wrought in people given the chance to surpass others’ low expectations.
In a feat of stamina familiar to teachers, Craig spends almost all of the eighty-minute show on her feet, talking—no water breaks, and almost no sitting. This show’s a workout. Under director Craig Anthony Bannister, she moves lightning-quick from character to character, from stooped janitor Baron (the show’s narrator and Malcolm X’s resident historian) to the school’s other teachers—timid to the point of uselessness or drill sergeants—and through a whole classroom full of students, wisecracking, dramatic, bored, cocky, nerdy. And Craig tackles a slew of accents and distinct physical tics without missing a beat. She leaves it all on the field.
If an initial reaction to the show is to feel we’ve been over this ground before—our school systems are massively flawed and kids are falling through the cracks; what else is new?—it’s worth remembering that No Child was first staged in 2006, when Sun already had been working in the public school system for years, since 1998. It’s heartbreaking that the play still feels entirely relevant, and that it might even seem too optimistic and sunny about these students’ future prospects, as narrated by the omniscient janitor Baron. Amphibian’s production of No Child is full of heart and hope—but at what point, sixteen years after it first hit the stage, must we acknowledge that hope without truly effective action will never be enough?
And Craig tackles a slew of accents and distinct physical tics without missing a beat. She leaves it all on the field.
WHEN: Through April 17th
WHERE: 120 S Main Street, Ft Worth, TX 76104