'No Child...' at Woolly Mammoth

This Friday, I went to see No Child... on the main stage at Woolly Mammoth, the second of its concurrent offerings of one-woman shows (the other being the remarkable The K of D, as reviewed by yours truly just below). This was a very different experience than K, despite the surface similarities- one of the largest being that this piece is not only autobiographical but written and performed by its creator, Nilaja Sun. Ms. Sun based the play on her experiences working as a teaching artist with high school students in the Bronx and creates something that rings VERY true onstage.

Perhaps I should explain a few things right out of the gate.

1) I've spent the last 2.5 years working as a teacher's assistant, so I KNOW me some teacher-talk.

2) It's basically the dearest wish of my heart to one day be a teaching artist in the position of Ms. Sun- to come into schools and share the Awesome of the theatre with kids

3) Ever since I sobbed like a baby at Mr. Holland's Opus (TRY and tell me that you didn't do the same- I DARE YOU), I've been something of a sucker for Inspiring Teacher Stories

So I walked into Woolly on Friday night ready and raring to be WOWED, to have my socks knocked clean off and needing to be tracked down across the aisles after the curtain call. Ms. Sun's performance certainly didn't disappoint- she's a master at creating the myriad of characters she puts on her stage. You're never in doubt as to who she's portraying at any moment- she establishes each character with a core movement or stance and a manner of speaking that she's able to switch between with the proverbial lightening speed. It's an impressive spectacle. The energy onstage was equaled in the enthralled audience around me- at the final blackout, I could hear the subscriber next to me breathe out a quiet Wow... as she surged into applause- an emotion echoed across the theatre, as patrons quickly rose to their feet to applaud Ms. Sun. I certainly followed suit- but I'm not ready to say this production quite met everything I was hoping for.

It's a familiar story, but then, that's what we expect. Recalcitrant youths are slowly pulled into creating their shining night upon the stage. Not everything is perfect and there are many a bump along the way, but it's a satisfying arc with a healthy dose of pathos that doesn't fall into the easy trap of sentimentality. There's some wonderful points being made at the absurdity of the strictures of No Child Left Behind that urgently need to be heard- there's a lot being made of the resonance of Ms. Sun's Bronx setting and our own DC public school system, and rightfully so.

I think I just wanted MORE- the play is only an hour long, after all, and I sat there KNOWING there was so much more that could be said, so much more story to be made from these remarkable lives Ms. Sun introduces to her audiences. My expectations were very high for all the reasons I set out so helpfully before you, and I can say that one of the things that pleased me about this production was how true it all rang. Non-teachers will definitely be able to recognise the characters they see onstage as expertly crafted, shorthand versions of real, gloriously complex people, but there are added moments of, Ahh! for the teachers in the audience, moments that made me want to raise my hand (ah, how apropos) and shout YES! Yes, that's it EXACTLY!

There's some wonderful humour in the piece and there was a palpable sense of community in the performance I watched on Friday. Ms. Sun does a fantastic job of drawing her audience in to her story- I honestly think I might have been one of very few people in the house that night that had any reservations about what they'd seen.

I think I'm going to say 3.5 stars for this one- I think it's a story that's worth telling and worth hearing, especially in Washington. If I wish that it could have been more, it's because what it already IS is of such high quality.


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