Nilaja Sun has written a prize-winning play depicting life behind the doors of a Bronx high school. It's short -- 65 minutes -- with a prop or two at hand and a cast of one. Doesn't sound like much, you say?
Well, guess again. Sun, a teacher/artist, had a four-week stint at besieged Martin Luther King Jr. High School not long ago, and out of that experience has come a sort of "Blackboard Jungle" meets "Welcome Back, Kotter" story titled "No Child. . .," a blistering peek into one melting pot classroom and one fledgling teacher's attempt to make a difference in young lives going nowhere fast.
Sun arrives at the not-so-fictional Malcom X High School -- past two metal-detecting machines, five school guards, two armed police officers and seven metal-detecting wands. Well, good morning to you too. She has inherited a class of 27 "students," including the crotch-grabbing Jerome, the doomed Jose, tongue-tied Philip and the bling-laden Shondrika. The new teacher announces that a play, Australian Timberlake Wertenbaker's "Our Country is Good," is to be a class project.
As rehearsals progress -- actress Victoria Perez believably playing 16 roles -- we learn much about the school and its glory days from an old and sage custodian. Perez has nailed the old man's gait and weathered face and wry outlook; sadness and optimism are mixed wonderfully here.
Things do not go well. The irony that the plot of "Our Country's Good" is about a penal colony, with inmates expounding on lives to be rescued, is not lost on the Latino, black and Asian cast.
Right up to curtain, showtime is in question. Absenteeism, shifted roles. But, the "reviews" are favorable, and more than one audience member says the kids "shone." Long-range changes here? Not really. For one brief moment, though, someone actually says "You were really good!"
"No Child. . ." is short for 2001's highly touted but much maligned piece of federal legislation, the No Child Left Behind Act. Incentives and penalties, ad nauseam testing, "accountability" -- all seemed to work against success, causing schools to manipulate results and lower standards. It also -- and this is where Jerome, Shondrika and friends are cued -- is said to have brought about "creative reclassification," edu-speak for transferring troublesome students so test results are more favorable. Putting it mildly, the program needs work.
But, "No Child. . ." is powerful, insightful and unexpectedly funny. Perez is close to amazing, surviving some trite moments at play's end. She deserves to go to the head of the class.