For the entire length of Nilaja Sun's No Child, the first play in the Readers Theatre's 2012-2013 season, Cynthia Henderson is alone on stage with a dustmop and a chair. And yet you will be completely captivated by her presence because she succeeds in making her presence manifold; she becomes – in sometimes stunningly rapid succession – an elderly school janitor, three different 10th grade teachers, about seven different students, a Jamaican security guard, the principal of Malcolm X High School, and a visiting artist-teacher.
Henderson's serial transformations remind you of one of your high school friends telling you a story in the cafeteria, but with all “and then she goes ...” left out and with the manic velocity of Robin Williams. It isn't just Henderson's voice that changes, but her body language. So you might initially worry about keeping all the characters straight, but then you very quickly realize that you are witnessing the repeated conjuring of at least 14 different existences with distinct inflections and postures.
You find yourself feeling sorry for the woebegone “Miss Tam,” who cannot find the handle on classroom discipline at all and being charmed by the natural leadership of “Jerome,” who has been left back twice and helps “Miss Sun” bring around his obstreperous peers.
Because, you see, the playwright is in her own play. Henderson's interpretation of Miss Sun is fascinating; you have the feeling that you are suddenly seeing Henderson be herself, which is a pretty sly way of conveying that character “Miss Sun” is simply Nilaja Sun, the realest, sanest person in a production that is a play within a play within a play.
When a play is called No Child you fear that it will be one long irritating screed against No Child Left Behind, the Bush Administration's poison French kiss down the throat of the nation's schools. But this is not agit prop; Sun gets in her little digs here and there, but the only polemic delivered comes (rather paradoxically) during her crisis of confidence at the play's climax.
No Child is a kaleidoscopic mixture of high concept and middle brow references. On one hand, the play opens with the elderly janitor Jackson Barron breaking the “fourth wall” and addressing the audience, but going even further by self-consciously commenting on his role and explicitly explaining the Russian Easter egg structure of the play. And on the other hand, when Sun gets around to creating the characters in her 10th grade classroom, they aren't more than 21st century Bronx updates of Gabe Kaplan's “sweathogs” and urban versions of John Hughes's “Breakfast Club.”
But Sun has both done her homework and taken good notes (presuming that much of this is based on personal experience) because a lot of the details that go by quickly ring very true to anyone familiar with the circus that is the American public school system. Some quietly hilarious bits: Sun's program is interrupted by an absurd field trip that causes her students to completely lose their concentration on the play. The high school principal's laser beam focus on keeping the $8,000 grant that is paying for Sun's program clearly supercedes any interest she has in the academic value of the program. Ms. Sun has a conversation with the grandmother of one of the students (who has gone missing) that is a brilliant and emotionally evocative tangle of English and Spanish. The commercial that rescues working actress Ms. Sun from financial ruin is for Red Bull.
The live music that accompanies this play – a distinctive feature of an Readers Theatre production – is a collaborative effort between director Anne Marie Cummings, who chose the “Negro” spirituals, and Elise Sciscioli, who arranged them for five voices. Sciscioli, with Shyla Foster, Harmony Graves, Nikki Schwarz and Travis Knapp, effectively gives Henderson room to breathe. The musical interludes punctuate the “action” allowing Henderson to pensively sweep the floor or sit scowling in the lone chair. The lyrics of the spirituals sometimes telegraph the meaning rather obviously, but the sonic beauty of the layered voices is a pleasure that transcends the context.
No Child is being performed at the Space at Greenstar Friday, Saturday, September 28-29 at 8 p.m. and a matinee performance at 3 p.m. on Sunday, September 30. Tickets are available at 607-217-6272.