No Child

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“No Child Left Behind” was the name and catchcry of former US president George W. Bush’s controversial act designed to narrow the education gap for disadvantaged school-children. Speaking of such students mid-way through No Child, Nilaja Sun offers a direct riposte: “We’ve abandoned them. And I’m no different, I’m abandoning them too.”

It comes at a crisis point in Sun’s extraordinary play, a one-woman dramatisation of her experiences teaching drama in some of New York City’s toughest schools. It’s a confronting confession, typical of Sun’s unflinching examination of the failings of the public school system and her own struggles within it.

Sun plays herself in this story as a naive idealist. Newly employed at a rough Bronx high school to coach an unruly bunch of tenth-graders through a production of the play Our Country’s Good, she does not anticipate the extent of the apathy of her students, nor the hopeless defeatism of their teachers.

Here Sun’s energetic portrayal of various other characters in this story start to come to life. With uncanny precision, she mimics the no-nonsense principal, a jaded school security guard scanning teenagers for weapons, the beleaguered English teacher, Miss Tam.

But it’s the kids themselves that really stretch Sun’s incredible physical elasticity, as she morphs breathlessly from the class loudmouth to wheezing nerd to sassy drama queen. It’s a testament both to her skills as a performer and her sensitive goodwill as a writer, that Sun makes these motley characters instantly (and comically) recognisable yet feel individually drawn.

Our Country’s Good is a play about convicts shipped out to Australia on the First Fleet and, through their chaotic rehearsals, Sun realises how the students themselves are imprisoned by social expectations in their own time: poverty, violence, and powerlessness within a broken-down school system are traps in a seemingly self-fulfilling prophesy.

Sun’s play, however, is careful to show that a school is also a place full of life and optimism. Small triumphs and acts of kindness fortify her otherwise despairing social criticism. If you missed No Child at last year’s Melbourne Festival, now is the time to see this remarkable piece of theatre.

No Child is playing at Theatre Works, St Kilda. The season is now extended until May 26.
For more information and tickets visit theatreworks.org.au.

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