Hamlet, never at a loss for high-wattage words, describes the players who come to the family castle as "the abstract and brief chroniclers of the time." Actors, the melancholy prince understood, hold up a mirror not just to nature but also to the age they live in.
In our era, it is the solitary performer onstage who has presented us with the most vivid accounts of the underreported parts of our world. It is to artists such as Anna Deavere Smith, Dael Orlandersmith, Danny Hoch, Roger Guenveur Smith and Sarah Jones that we turn to find out what lies beyond those overpriced, practically vacuum-sealed condos so beloved by our navel-gazing playwrights. Let's add the name Nilaja Sun to that list of gifted soloists whose dispatches from the battlefield of contemporary life have helped to fill in the gaps of our faulty knowledge and even faultier compassion.
"No Child . . .," Sun's dynamic one-woman show, which opened Friday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, teems with the students, teachers and staff workers of the fictitious (but all too credible) Malcolm X High School in the Bronx. It's a tough place, more like a penitentiary than a college-prep school, and not the most hospitable environment for a teaching artist such as Ms. Sun, who's invited to conduct drama workshops with kids no one would confuse with those theatrical go-getters Debbie Allen drilled into shape in "Fame."
These are students with psychological and learning challenges, who have trouble sitting still, never mind memorizing lines from "Our Country's Good," Timberlake Wertenbaker's 1988 play about a group of convicts putting on a Restoration comedy in an Australian penal colony. It's an odd choice of drama (the class cynics wonder why they're not getting the usual "A Raisin in the Sun" or "West Side Story"), but by the end the selection makes total sense.
"So the kids are actually gonna be in a play within a play within. . . ." Ms. Sun breathlessly explains to her landlord, who stonily replies that students "need more discipline and less self-expression." But then he's mostly concerned with getting the rent from an often out-of-work actress who, to catch up on her debts, has taken a job that requires her to turn a bunch of academic castoffs into thespians -- a term that provokes Rosie O'Donnell silliness the moment it's introduced.
Teachers have it rough -- maybe even rougher -- than struggling actors. And as Sun suggests, President Bush's No Child Left Behind initiative, which among other things calls for continual testing, hasn't exactly helped educators searching for creative ways to rescue a faltering system.
If the title of Sun's Obie-winning piece hints at the despairing truth behind the reformist hype, it also calls attention to the promise and innocence that are at stake. Not that these pupils are angels. Sun, guided by the unobtrusive direction of Hal Brooks, is at her tragicomic best when vocalizing the classroom cacophony -- the racist and sexist name-calling, the thuggish attitudes, the distracted inanity that forces instruction to take a back seat to crowd control.
How does she morph into multitudes? Costumes have nothing to do with it. Dressed in nondescript slacks and a white satiny shirt, Sun transforms herself through adjustments in her posture and gait. Cocking her neck one way, she conjures a unique street-toughened soul, and the flexibility of her mouth and lips have an uncanny expressivity. Breathing problems and speech defects are used as colorfully as the array of accents.
Janitor Baron serves as narrator. He enjoys the silence of the hallways, which he treads with a limp, a busy mop and a kind of religious devotion to the school that's employed him since 1958. Ms. Tam, the overwhelmed English teacher, ineffectually tries to keep the students in their seats as she welcomes Ms. Sun, explaining that it's normal for everyone to arrive 25 to 30 minutes late for the 41-minute class.
One of the more musical voices is that of the no-nonsense Jamaican security guard, who keeps telling Shondrika, a girl with a chip on her shoulder about her name, to reenter the metal detectors without her belt, bling, "hair tings" and "sass." "Your tax dollars at work," Baron quips.
There's also a veteran principal who doggedly refuses to concede defeat and a Russian teacher who replaces Ms. Tam's laxity with Iron Curtain strictness, but it's the motley crew of students who make the biggest splash. Seemingly untrainable, they are drawn in by the parallels between the imprisoned characters they're performing and themselves.
Sun's narrative might not be consistently well plotted. There are choppy segments in the storytelling as well as moments when the characterizations verge on caricatures. But she manages to avoid sentimentality even while finding patches of light amid the stubborn grimness, and the humor throughout is sanity-steeling.
"The theater is an expression of civilization," one student, quoting from "Our Country's Good," announces to Ms. Sun, after she has given up on the school show in utter exasperation. "The convicts will be speaking a refined, literate language and expressing sentiments of a delicacy they are not used to. It will remind them that there is more to life than crime, punishment."
The tears streaking down Ms. Sun's face are a testament to the belief that no child should be left behind, even though a crushing number won't be saved.
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'No Child . . .'
Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Call for exceptions.
Ends: April 13
Price: $20 to $50
Contact: (213) 628-2772, www.centertheatregroup.org.
Running time: 1 hour, 5 minutes