You won’t regret spending time in Nilaja Sun’s classroom. At least not as it’s presented in No Child…, a one-person exploration of the twinned powers of art and education, brought to vivid life in a digital production by Arden Theatre Company. Material that has the potential to be didactic and heavy-handed blooms in the vibrant hands of actor Taysha Marie Canales and director Justin Jain.
Sun, an actor and playwright herself, based No Child… on her own experiences as a teaching artist in the New York City public-school system. Premiered in 2006, with a title evoking the George W. Bush–era federal policy No Child Left Behind, it remains relevant as schools around the country slash arts funding, cram more children into underresourced classrooms, or simply close their doors for good. It’s impossible to watch the production—which was originally slated for an in-person staging at the Arden’s Horan Studio in April 2020—and not also consider the impact of the coronavirus on an already fragile education system.
A trenchant journey
Sun takes her audience on a trenchant journey through the hardship and resilience needed to survive and thrive in her classroom in the Bronx. We learn that an 18-minute subway ride separates the wealthiest Congressional district in the nation from the poorest. You can guess where this particular catchment sits. The classroom itself—rendered with superb sterility by production designer Christopher Haig—houses “the most academically and emotionally challenged youth” of Malcolm X Vocational High School. Over the course of six weeks, Sun will teach them to immerse themselves in the world of a play.
The 90-minute comedy-drama toggles between analysis and rehearsals for Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good, the chosen project, and Sun’s own reckoning with the job she’s trying to do. She asks herself why she selected a play about transported convicts in Australia for a class of mostly Black and brown students who are already being criminalized and otherized by society, even in the tenth grade. (“This totally wouldn’t jive if I were white and trying to do this,” she observes in an aside.) She also allows the students in the class to flourish, to give voice to their fears and frustrations, and to discover the regenerative power of art on their own terms.
At its best, No Child… chronicles how one caring and strong-willed teacher can change lives by offering the right educational experience. Unlike the other educators who populate the halls of Malcolm X High—the well-meaning but in-over-her-head Ms. Tam, the stern seen-it-all Principal Kennedy—Sun never patronizes or condescends to her charges; she treats them with respect, as people with potential. That simple extension of humanity makes all the difference.
A Philly acting treasure
Canales embodies Sun, and Ms. Tam, and every one of the highly individual students in that tenth-grade classroom. Although the play has been done over the years with a full cast, Sun wrote it to be performed by a sole actor, and Canales more than meets the challenge. She can shift from teacher to student to security guard with whiplash-inducing acuity, alter her voice to jump from male to female without sounding hokey, and play an insouciant 16-year-old and a septuagenarian janitor with the same unflinching authority. Canales has long been one of Philly’s acting treasures, and her performance here more than proves she can hold her own.
Jain, a well-regarded actor in his own right, paces the performance with the same rhythms of a typical school day. The action slows down when the students protest the play they’re assigned as boring, then speeds up when they start to understand why Sun assigned it, recognizing similarities between the characters’ lives and their own. Videographer Jorge Cousineau’s probing camera stalks the halls of the high school—which seem full of life thanks to Anthony Martinez-Briggs’s sound design, even as Canales is the only figure to appear on screen.
It would be naïve to act as if art and compassion can solve every problem facing an underfunded, underestimated education system, but No Child… shows that putting in the hard groundwork can reap beautiful rewards.
Image description: Actor Taysha Marie Canales performs in the streaming production of No Child… She wears a light-blue polo and shades her eyes with her hand as if she’s looking a long distance away. She’s in a classroom with a blackboard, a photo display, and an American flag.
What, When, Where
No Child… By Nilaja Sun. Directed by Justin Jain. Arden Theatre Company. Streaming through May 9, 2021 (donation required, pay what you decide). 215-922-1122 or ardentheatre.org.
No Child… is closed captioned.