This week’s archive feature takes us back to 2013 as we revisit one of our international co-pros, and with biting class commentary, zany impersonations and plenty of heart, it sounds like Nilaja Sun’s tour de force solo work ‘No Child…’ was a good one!
After eight years of teaching in some of New York’s toughest schools, Nilaja Sun decided to turn her experience to creating No Child…, a mesmerising solo show that, with pep and humour, depicts the battle-ground that US public education has become.
With a couple of chairs, a prop or two, and zero costume changes, No Child… presents the story of a newly employed drama teacher charged with the task of teaching Our Country’s Good (an old timey play about British convicts on the First Fleet) to the likes of sass-mouthed and disturbingly suave students, who don’t expect much more than to drop out, get pregnant or go to jail. Audience members are subsequently confronted with a brilliant revelation of the disparities and inequality that lies at the heart of America; No Child… paints an incisive portrait of a broken system and a rallying cry on behalf of an entire generation.
A self confessed student of comedic masters including Charlie Chaplain, Eddie Murphy and Carol Burnett, in No Child…, Sun gives her comedy chops a work out through the wickedly devious portrayals of 16 characters, including the sass-mouthed “drama queen” Shondrika, the manically hyperactive Brian and the suavely arrogant Jerome. For her performance in No Child…, Sun garnered 21 awards including: an Obie Award, a Lucille Lortel Award, two Outer Critics Circle Awards including the John Gassner Playwriting Award for Outstanding New American Play, a Theatre World Award, the Helen Hayes Award, two NAACP Theatre Awards, and Best One-Person Show at the Comedy Arts Festival.
A spoken word excerpt of her performance can be found from 07:48 at the radio interview below. In it Sun gives a masterclass in dialect precision and comic delivery; it is well worth you time.
While in Melbourne promoting her Theatre Works’s season, Sun spoke to Aussie Theatre and explained her motivation for developing No Child… stemmed from the realisation that there was a dire need for youth to have access to theatre within their curriculum.
“Having been a teaching artist since 1998 in New York public schools I have had the opportunity to witness first-hand what happens in these schools and it’s a story worth sharing,….
When I was writing this I had already taught in about 40 schools so I had worked with hundreds of kids and met scores of teachers. I wanted to do a funny piece but to really emphasize my message that teachers are doing wonderful work and much of what they do is unseen….
Opportunities always seemed to be for other people, not for me. I wanted to let kids know that yes, there are opportunities for you, every single one of you, and there are teachers who are willing to help you on your journey.”
In an interview with the New York Times, Zak Berkman, founding producer of Epic Theater Center (the company that first commissioned No Child…), describes Sun’s uncanny knack for mimicry as the key to her success as both a teacher and performer:
“She’s a bit like a stand-up comedian in her ability to quickly recognize a student’s personality and then play it back to them,” he said, “in a way that isn’t teasing, but is revealing enough to make the students know that they’re being seen.”
No Child… received its World Premiere by Epic Theatre Center, New York, in May 2006. Since then, it has had over 850 performances across the America’s and Europe where it was met with fierce praise. After an almost entirely sold out season for it is inaugural Australian presentation at the Melbourne Festival in 2012, Nilaja Sun returned down under in 2013 to reprise her extraordinary work, this time with Theatre Works. This season was presented as part of the VCE Drama Playlist to year 11 and 12 drama student across the state.
When it came to selecting critical praise for this show, I was spoilt for choice; it was near impossible to find a bad review. Some of the most glowing from the 2013 Melbourne season are included below:
“Anyone that has ever spent time in a classroom would adore this show, finding humour and familiarity in the situations. Truly unique and innovative in its delivery, “No Child…” is not to be missed.”
– Stage Whispers
“A remarkable theatrical achievement, and a wonderful example of the importance – nay, necessity – of arts education from an early age… While the New York specifics of No Child… may be alien to Australia, the multi-award winning, long-running play’s first trip down under is well timed, with the recent changes to our education system via NAPLAN. Its ultimate message, however, is not one of politics, but of deeper, more ingrained social problems with US – and yes, Australian – society, and how the arts and education can help improve these. It’s a message of hope, and of the importance of arts within school curriculums.”
– Arts Hub
“Sun never whitewashes the challenges faced nor smothers them with sentimentality. Rather, what makes No Child… so impressive is the way she channels her extraordinary gift for caricature through an indefatigable sense of goodwill. She’s a dynamo, can summon in a heartbeat an entire classroom of immediately recognisable characters – a slouching smart-mouthed gangsta; a hapless loser with a speech impediment; the prim insolence of an adolescent girl – and do so with astounding generosity and accuracy.”
– The Age.
“With a set consisting of four crappy looking chairs and a broom, this production is bare bones; relying on Sun to carry us all the way through… and she does. Boy, does she ever. Just go see it. Try not to miss it.”
– Australian Stage
And for good measure, here is a hot review from it’s European run in Edinburgh:
“Standing ovations are the order of the day at Nilaja Sun’s one-woman show. It’s easy to see why, because in playing 16 characters and offering a remarkable tale of hope over adversity, Sun delivers the mix of tour de force performance and uplifting narrative that guarantees an Edinburgh hit.”
– The Guardian
No Child’s… return season at Theatre Works was a terrific success met with packed houses, regular standing ovations and an extended run due to public demand.
The team from the original production are listed below:
Written and Performed by