Most scripts about dead-end kids and their downtrodden teachers in urban schools highlight one inspired educator who somehow manages to part the pedagogical clouds and effect an educational breakthrough. Cue the trumpets and everybody leaves feeling better about schools that are, in reality, often nothing short of horror stories.
When No Child, now at Cleveland Public Theatre, hews to that predictable format, the results are formulaic. But playwright Nilaja Sun captures some realistic dialogue in the course of this 75-minute show. And the sole performer, Nina Domingue, puts on an impressive display of attitudes and accents as she populates a particularly challenging classroom.
As a result, the production is often entertaining but not nearly as insightful as it might have been, had it followed the hint alluded to in the title. If Sun had attempted to take on George Bush's venal and classically incompetent No Child Left Behind program, this could have been a blockbuster. Especially so if she had focused on the absurdity of "teaching the test" and the constant pressure of schools being found as failures if they don't hit arbitrary exam numbers.
Instead, the playwright plops us down in Malcolm X High School in New York City, where Ms. Sun (the character who plays the playwright) is a visiting theater-arts teacher/consultant who is assisting novice and timid Ms. Tam's class. For six weeks, Ms. Sun is to lead the students through the rehearsal and production of a play called The Country's Good, which involves Australian convicts.
The parallels — real prisoners and teenage captives in our educational gulag — are obvious, and our hero teacher laments her choice for a brief moment. But she persists and is soon face-to-face with an interesting range of student types. And the difficulties of reaching the kids at their level are well indicated.
As the school janitor/narrator leads us through the proceedings, we see how Ms. Sun grapples with her demons of doubt and impending defeat, culminating in a show staged for the parents.
Even though the ending is all too predictable, Domingue's performance succeeds on almost every level. She has a firm grasp of African-American, Asian and Latino accents, and she draws clear distinctions with body postures and facial expressions. Classroom diva Shondrika is perhaps her finest creation, throwing attitude in all directions at everyone. But hard-case Jerome, shy Phillip and aspirational Chris are all nicely defined.
Domingue also essays a number of different adults. And although her elderly janitor borrows a bit heavily from Richard Pryor's Mudbone, she nails the prim dictatorial mien of the school principal Mrs. Kennedy and the baffled hesitancy of Ms. Tam.
The only area where Domingue might refine her performance is in conveying the cacophony of a classroom. It's devilishly hard for one person to do, but by streaming various students' lines more quickly, it would approximate the auditory anarchy that all teachers experience.
Sure, some actual teachers might scoff at the problems faced by a visiting teaching assistant such as Ms. Sun (try teaching five or six classes, all by yourself, all year!). But No Child makes its points while allowing Ms. Domingue to show off her considerable acting chops.
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