'No Child...' portrays problems in U.S. education system

Nilaja Sun is a one-woman wonder.

Not only did Sun write “No Child…,” her play about the deeply flawed American education system, but she is also the one and only star of the play. She plays roles of narrator, protagonist, antagonist and every role in between. The play is part of PlayMakers Repertory Company’s second stage series, PRC2.

Sun’s first role in the show is that of an elderly African-American janitor at a fictional New York City public high school. Sun’s portrayal of the janitor is complete with facial tics and an almost perfectly pained walk and crooked posture. The janitor reveals that the play is, in fact, a play within a play.

This information sets the stage for Sun’s next role: herself. She enters the school and attempts to lead the troubled and extremely disobedient youth in putting on a play about convicts.

Much of the success of “No Child…” can be attributed to Sun’s honesty in portraying the high school students of New York City. She takes no shortcuts as she jumps head first — foul language and all — into the role of misbehaved 18-year-old boys and girls.

While every student’s character seems to channel a certain stereotype, each is wildly entertaining. Sun plays each role — from nerdy boys to sassy young women — with infallible wit.

At times, Sun must play five or more characters at once, which makes the rapid transitions from one to the other challenging to follow, especially when two characters are talking to each other. But all the characters come equipped with particular hand motions, voices, postures and attitudes that distinguish them from one another.

Sun also skillfully employs silence in the show’s conversational scenes. In fact, some of the play’s most humorous moments occur when Sun chooses silence over dialogue.

Some scenes seem more autobiographical than others. As the character of Ms. Sun is torn between her desire to inspire and her sense of helplessness, “No Child…” takes the form of a cry for attention. But Sun’s performance both speaks to the reality of the problems in the U.S. education system and draws attention to the hope leftover for change to occur. Her performance is fierce, uplifting and courageous.

See “No Child…” through Sunday in the Kenan Theatre, with evening shows at 7:30 p.m. and a matinee on Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $10 to $35.


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