The Melbourne Festival officially opened on Thursday, but Nilaja Sun’s one-woman show No Child… snuck in before it to kickstart this year’s theatre program. It’s provocative and entertaining theatre that, regrettably, ends Sunday.
No Child… Nilaja Sun, Theatreworks & Melbourne Festival, Arts Centre, Until Oct 14.
Nilaja Sun opens the Melbourne Festival theatre program with an astonishing one-woman show that bores under the skin of America’s public education system. Drawn from the performer’s experiences teaching in New York’s roughest schools, No Child… is the story of Sun, a naïve and broke young actor, arriving at Malcolm X High. Her mission: to help her students rehearse and perform a play. Her first moment in class features kids running amok, spewing racist taunts at their mousy Asian-American teacher. Then there are the metal detectors and security guards, a dire legacy of America’s high school massacres.
Sun’s optimism turns to grim resolve as she confronts the reality of mass truancy and high staff turnover, learns that many of her actors’ parents won’t come to the show, and prepares to lose cast members to gang violence and worse.
The play itself, Our Country’s Good, has an Aussie connection. It’s adapted from Thomas Keneally’s novel The Playmaker, about the 1789 convict performance of The Recruitment Officer, the first play staged in Australia.
During chaotic classroom exchanges, parallels emerge between the convicts’ situation and the students’: it’s clear that poverty, violence, powerlessness and despair can still lead to role-playing that conforms to and perpetuates social expectations.
Breaking the pattern seems impossible, and when the students finally reject Sun and the play, her mask drops to reveal quiet devastation.
Sun never whitewashes the challenges faced nor smothers them with sentimentality. Rather, what makes No Child… so impressive is the way she channels her extraordinary gift for caricature through an indefatigable sense of goodwill. She’s a dynamo, can summon in a heartbeat an entire classroom of immediately recognisable characters – a slouching smart-mouthed gangsta, all teeth; a hapless loser with a serious speech impediment; the prim insolence of an adolescent girl – and do so with astounding generosity and accuracy.
Ultra-sharp character changes, fast-paced direction and slick lighting design help Sun’s elastic sketches rise above lampoon to capture the power of theatre to change young minds. For all its energetic comedy, though, it’s a show that burns with anger at the injustice that denies young people all the opportunities education can provide.