EmptyKirk Douglas Theatre, Culver City
Through April 13
The news from the trenches is not good.
A few months ago, in her solo show "Dances With Lemons," Karen Kay Woods gave us an alarming look at the state of inner-city schools in Los Angeles. In "No Child ...," Nilaja Sun takes us to the Eastern front in New York, where the battlefield is at least as chaotic and dispiriting.
Developed by New York's Epic Theatre Center, the piece has won a slew of awards since it premiered in 2006 off-Broadway. If these two big-city war zones are any indication, the problems that beset public schools in this country go well beyond any solutions yet devised by the politicians and education bureaucrats.
Fortunately, Sun is a dazzling performer who knows how to dramatize what she's talking about. Drawing on her nine years of experience as a teaching artist in New York, she has fashioned the play to illustrate the power of art to change troubled young lives -- even, or especially, lives for whom art is as alien as a two-parent family. (Mothers are spoken of, but not a single mention is made of a father.)
We're in Malcolm X High, a fictitious public school whose prisonlike atmosphere (nicely suggested by Sibyl Wickersheimer's sterile set design) and invasive security system is, shall we say, not conducive to the learning experience.
Sun's immediate goal is to prepare a class of rebellious, multicultural students to put on a play -- Timberlake Wertenbaker's "Our Country's Good" -- with striking parallels to their own situation. This becomes the occasion for a battle of wills best summed up at one point by Sun's exasperated "God, I need a Vicodan!"
Starting out as an elderly black janitor, Sun brings many characters to life, but the most important are her students in all their belligerent, teasing, sly, indifferent and colorful linguistic glory. The interesting point she captures so well is the ritualized feel of their behavior, which is designed by walk, gesture and vocal style to keep the world at arm's length, carve out an identity and protect their feelings from further disappointment.
Sun's instant transformations are a marvel of sharply observed detail enhanced by a graceful freedom of body and spirit. Sometimes she can even be caught breathing oddly in the dialect of a character's agitation. Her natural playfulness and obvious empathy for the kids make her a pleasure to watch.
For all that, what we're watching essentially is an American tragedy. Sun is so good at entertaining us -- along with a tendency to sentimentalize as the piece draws to a close -- that we can lose sight of her main point. These days, all is not quiet on the Western front, the Eastern front and all the other fronts in between. Hal Brooks directs.
NO CHILD ...
Presented by Center Theatre Group
Playwright-performer: Nilaja Sun
Director: Hal Brooks
Local scenic designer: Sibyl Wickersheimer
Original off-Broadway scenic designer: Narelle Sissons
Lighting designer: Mark Barton
Costume designer: Jessica Gaffney
Sound designer: Ron Russell