Setting: Malcolm X Vocational High School in the Bronx. We tour its old, beat-up stairwells, aisles, classrooms, and toilets, “where the smell of make-up, hair pomade, and gossip fills the air,” as janitor Jackson Baron Copeford III tells us.
So begins No Child … by Nilaja Sun, a fine entry in Arden Theatre Company’s Spring Digital Season. Running through May 9, No Child … is a 90-minute, one-woman tour de force for Taysha Marie Canales. You could easily stage this Obie-winning 2006 play with a full cast, but Canales does it as Sun has done it for years — by herself, taking on the voices, attitudes and crises of 16 characters: teachers, administrators, maintenance staff, parents, and, most of all, students.
No Child … is at once a memoir of Sun’s brutal awakening in the New York City Public Schools and an unabashed argument for arts education. Canales makes it sing. Directing at Arden for his first time, Barrymore Award-winning actor Justin Jain keeps the tension taut. And videographer Jorge Cousineau and production designer Chris Haig expand the TV screen into a world of dreams deferred.
The play’s Ms. Sun, the teacher character in the play, is a struggling actor who visits Malcolm X weekly to teach the students “who think they’re the worst class in the school” how to do a play. It’s a heck of a reach: British dramatist Timberlake Wertenbaker’s 1988 play Our Country’s Good, about Australian prisoners in 1788 who perform a 1706 play titled The Recruiting Officer.
Very meta. As No Child ... opens, Copeford says we’re about to see “a story of a play within a play within a play.” Phrases and sentences from Our Country’s Good float through No Child … , commenting on it: “In a small way in a few hours I have seen something change,” or one I especially loved: “Human beings have an intelligence that has nothing to do with the circumstances in which they were born.”
Ms. Sun confronts a resistant classroom, José, Coca, Xiomara, Phillip, Jerome, and the splendid Shondrika. Canales shifts deftly among accents and registers, creating characters by slumping in a seat or fingering a lock of hair. As the teacher instructs, corrects, and pleads with students, the camera circles rhythmically. The classroom is empty, yet, thanks to Canales, we feel all the bodies squirming.
The play they are doing is “mad boring,” the kids cry. They see no connection … yet. But they start to. Like the Australian prisoners, they can show the world they are more, are better, than that world expects.
Just as it seems they have it, the class rebels, and Ms. Sun stomps off for a showdown with steely principal Mrs. Kennedy. “The worst thing, the worst thing is,” Ms. Sun says, “that all these kids in there are me, brown skin, brown eyes, stuck. … We’re totally abandoning these kids, as we have been for so many years.”
From here, No Child … accelerates and, against all odds, something happens in the auditorium. As lights flash and the camera slants, the students ascend to the stage.
Art’s transformative power is a worthy theme, somewhat heavy in the play as written, the reversal too easy, too magical. Canales and company, though, earn it. She’s killed herself to get where she gets. Copeford, our chorus, gives us the best possible outcome: The show, he says, has “sparked a mini-revolution in the hearts of everyone in that auditorium.”
Streaming through May 9 as part of the Arden spring digital season. Donate at ardentheatre.org to stream the production.