As much as I love the theatre, I always wanted to be a teacher. I loved to find undiscovered mental gems and share the hidden secrets of the world. I devoured books. And I loved kids, even when I was one. I graduated from Illinois State University with a degree in elementary education; my main areas of study were language arts, reading, and drama in the classroom. Despite several declarations that I “don’t have to have a classroom to make an impact,” I am not employed as a teacher. There are plenty of reasons for this to gall me, but one big reason I sigh with relief not to be in a classroom today is the No Child Left Behind Act. It’s a mean little piece of nonsense that has teamed up with my personal issues to chase me away from my lifelong dream. So when I heard about Nilaja Sun’s play No Child… at Krannert Center, I was intrigued. I wanted to see the enemy on familiar ground, and, to be honest, I wanted to see it raked over the coals.
No Child…, under the direction of Latrelle Bright, offers an up-close-and-uncomfortable experience from the very start. The audience’s entrance, overseen by a barking security guard, is later revealed on stage to be the drill that students go through each morning. They have humiliation for breakfast. The difference between their experience and mine is that they are defiant or bored while I was nervous and a bit confused by the process. As I found my seat, a conflict arose just inside the black box theatre. I avoided looking at the confrontation, not wanting to acknowledge it, and everyone else in the room silently agreed to do the same. When I finally tuned into the words that were being spat, I realized the girls were in character. I looked up, made brief eye contact with one of the young ladies, and was met with a loud, “Whadda you lookin’ at?” This was going to be fun.
In a state that is pumping more money into security than books, Ms. Sun, the protagonist of the play, is given the exciting — if daunting — task of transforming the “worst class in school” into a rehearsing theatre troupe. She is to guide them into a creative process without inhibitions or outside worries. And these kids do everything they can to scare her away. One of the students, Brianna, is played by Martasia Jones with flawless comic timing. Her distractions are simultaneously infuriating to the teacher in me and lessons in physical comedy for the actor. Jose and Jerome, portrayed by Shawn Richard Pereira and Donovan Diaz, respectively, come off as wounded soldiers in the midst of battle. Jerome pushes against his drama teacher’s efforts until she pushes back, convincing him that she cares. Jose keeps the peace among his fellow students by having the strongest arm. Each of these young men wears his vulnerability and strength on the same sleeve and the effect is haunting.
Ms. Sun, played by Tanisha Pyron, is likeable and a not just a little dramatic. Perfect. She is, after all, the teaching artist who has come to inject a brighter future into this disaster of a situation. Pyron’s portrayal brings out Ms. Sun’s enthusiasm in a way that sends her students sprinting behind their defense mechanisms.
The most notable single performance in No Child… is Preston “Wigasi” Brant’s. He eases into the role of Janitor Baron with the humor, patience, and wisdom of a much older actor. His physical transformation is enough to impress, but he offers much more. His singing, for instance, is gorgeous. It is strong and unassuming, like the old custodian he portrays. Janitor Baron is meant to be a sort of charming grandfather to all. He’s a funny ghost that glides through the school and observes the changes of time. Preston Brant did a fantastic job, top to bottom.
The students portrayed in No Child…, Jose and Jerome, Brianna and Coco, Chris and Phillip, are not generic facsimiles of each other, but you can see the similar struggles they face: racism, abandonment, death, poverty, fear, and expectations that are as negative as their self images.
In the most memorable moment of the play, the cast comes together to perform a punishing, wordless dance of barely contained rage that screams “Help me.” The dance starts with one young man, who hits his chest, stomps his foot, slaps the floor … He glares out at the world, pleading with it for mercy and daring it to turn its back on him again. He repeats the same pattern, over and over, faster and faster, as others join his struggle. The entire school, teachers, students, and parents, end up in this whirl of defiance. They are helpless and exhausted, working with and against each other, building a cacophony of frustration. It is a collective tantrum that left me in tears.
In the end, I didn’t see the No Child Left Behind Act take the beating I was hoping for. I thought more would be said about “teaching to the test.” I wanted to hear all the illogical “talking point” arguments that are behind NCLB, and I wanted them to get smacked down. Instead, I saw a drama teacher inspire a group of kids who thought they had nothing to offer or look forward to. They didn’t get what they needed from The System, but they got what they needed from each other. I had a similar experience with this play: I wanted a bloodbath, and I got a lovefest. That, I have to say, was a pleasant surprise. I’ll take it.
After its protracted run at KCPA (only a week, which has already ended), this piece will have another life. It will travel beyond the theater’s familiar walls to be presented in schools, churches, and community centers in the Champaign-Urbana area. If you were not lucky enough to attend one of the sold-out performances this past week, seek this play out elsewhere. It will, I predict, do what great plays and great teachers are meant to do: it will inspire you, and its lesson will linger.
All photos courtesy of Eric Ponder.