For an insider's look at the state of arts education in the inner-city, head to the Edison theatre for The Black rep's remount of last season's smash success, "No Child..." - written by playwright Nilaja Sun.
The play follows the daily struggles of a visiting teaching artiste, Nilaja Sun as she attempts to analyze, cast and rehears a production of British playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker's Our Country's Good at an inner-city school in of New York's toughest boroughs, with the toughest 10th grade class in school. Some of the myriad of problems she endures during her very short six-week tenure in a place most would call Hell are: a timid high school teacher who quits halfway thru; self-doubt over her choice of directing a play about convicts and the implications of it being performed by a primarily black and Hispanic cast; a scary ringleader who undermines her authority when she most needs him to help; a lead actor who is plagued by gang problems; an authoritative and well-meaning school administrator who makes it clear that the show will go on; a strict Russian substitute teacher that the kids don't like; field trips scheduled routinely and willy-nilly throughout her scant rehearsal period; and missing performers 24 hours before the show opens. You think she'd just give up on these kids and go screaming into the night, right?
No, because Ms. Sun can see them growing - both in self-esteem and understanding - right before her very eyes, their eyes full of determination to be known for something before they wind up in jail or in the cemetery.
There are many poignant moments in the show: a shy student breaking through to shine; the pregnant student hellbent on seeing her child does not become a statistic; the bully ringleader delivering his lines with grace and pride - moments after declaring the show a piece of crap; and a final performance dedicated to the memories of their beloved janitor (who a la American Beauty narrates the story), and of a brother fallen to gangland violence - a final performance not polished or sharp in any way - but full of passion and heart and hope. And the best part of all - all 16 of the characters in the show are played by one actress - the very talented Patrice D. McClain!
Direction by Joe Hanrahan (who is certainly no stranger to one-man shows himself as Artistic Director of The Midnight Company) is sharp and clear, telling us this lovely story with equal part humor, poignancy and care. But, of course, the lion's share of the praise for this amazing task falls directly on the shoulders of Ms. McClain.
Being a teacher artist herself (in Chicago), McClain knows this world. She plays Ms. Sun pretty close to her own vest - wisely letting her be our Everyman, we feel her every frustration and every joy - but then she dazzles us with a veritable whirlwind of varied characterization - clearly delineating, through dialect and physicality: the timid Asian teacher, the black male thug, the burnt-out B-boy, the bad girl with attitude, the shy wallflower who shines, a sweet pregnant Latina, a Hispanic gangbanger, an 80-plus year old janitor, the tough-guy Jamaican security guard, the charismatic new male lead teacher and the determined admin with such crispness and awareness that you are NEVER in doubt of which character is speaking through her. She accomplishes the stunning feat of having up to ten characters carrying on a conversation at the same time - no small task at all.
If you missed the show the first time around, I highly recommend that you see it now. An extremely versatile actress, giving a bravura performance... If that doesn't prove the worth of arts education, I don't know what will. Run, don't walk.
"No Child…" continues, not at the Black Rep's usual home, the Grandel, but at the beautiful Edison Theatre on the campus of Washington University, through September 30th.