The theme of the script is recognizable but the specifics are original. While she has this is not autobiographical, Sun, who was a teaching artist in New York City, surely relies upon her experiences and observations. The pivotal individual is an instructor (Donnetta Lavinia Grays) who arrives at Malcolm X Public High School in the Bronx and intends to stage Timberlake Wertenbaker's difficult play, Our Country's Good, with her students. Why this particular play? Well, it's about some convicts who, during the 18th century, were sent to a British penal colony in Australia. There they stage a production with those who have jailed the inmates.
Grays is excellent as the gifted teacher. She is affectionate yet firm and the audience feels for and with her. Her persona is not uncommon. Lizan Mitchell plays a wise, perceptive custodian with authenticity and an empathetic feel for her character. She introduces the play and her lines throughout the performance are filled with insight. Moreover, she moves slowly and, it seems, painfully as if time has sapped her energy. Portia plays the bad girl, who is cantankerous and difficult. Anthony Mark Stockard is at his best as Jerome, a bright but wise guy type student who eventually manages to miss the performance of the play within the play, so to speak. In all, the four actors take on fifteen or sixteen roles.
Theatreworks' first ensemble rendition of No Child is a tight, moving rendition which features topflight performance. Brian Prather's set includes a rear, discolored and cracked concrete wall. Just above, a window shows a hole which is, no doubt, the result of a bullet. This is reality.
Those of us who have taught in an at-risk or ghetto school (call it what you may) will be transported with immediacy and respond to the situation. One imagines the distinctive scent which accompanies an old, creaky, decrepit inner city building. The journey is sharp and painful. Nilaja Sun's play is evocative and toughdirectly approximating the actual circumstances on this very day in many a city. The performance is fresh while the material is familiar.
I trust that No Child suggests possibilities. Perhaps performance art, within this context, may liberate lives and awaken adolescents' potential for growth, change and health. Cynics will claim that little has changed during the past forty years. The play raises cogent, urgent issues. The script is strong and the acting accomplished. Ruggiero, directing, puts it together.
No Child continues at TheaterWorks in Hartford through October 5th. For ticket information, call the box office at (860) 527-7838 or visit www.theaterworkshartford.org.
- Fred Sokol