There is a moment in No Child…, the first play of Syracuse Stage’s 38th season, when main character Nilaja sits alone in a chair, lit by a single spotlight. She ponders the deficiencies of the American education system, which has led to apathetic, unqualified teachers and uninspired, underachieving and even cruel students.
“But I chose to teach in my city, the city that raised me, and I'm tired,” she says, visibly drained and frustrated. And that is the central message of No Child..., laid out clearly.
The play, written by Nilaja Sun, focuses on a teaching artist who has to find a way to intellectually engage a group of 10th graders at the fictional Malcolm X High School. She does so by making them analyze, rehearse and perform a play by Timberlake Wertenbaker, Our Country’s Good.
And because she is giving this assignment to a group of teenagers, naturally, there would be a Justin Timberlake joke. It’s the humorous moments like this that gives the play its authenticity.
Sun, who starred in the original off-Broadway version of No Child..., based the material on her experiences as a teaching artist.
The production at Syracuse Stage stars Reenah L. Golden, who is also a teaching artist in real life. Golden has a tough task in the production. She has to portray 16 characters with no costume changes, on a mostly bare set, while creating a performance worthy of filling Nilaja Sun’s shoes. And for the most part, she succeeds.
The play's central message, about the crisis in American education and particularly the “No Child Left Behind” Act, is heavy-handed at times, laid out like a long diatribe.
Yet director Timothy Bond keeps the play from turning into a sermon by making sure Golden's actions are understated, large enough to be discernable but never over the top. Such direction, and some sharply-timed lighting, helps the play stay grounded and focused on its memorable characters.
With just one twirl of her hair or a flip of the hand, Golden effortlessly transitions from character to character, sometimes within one line. She is at her best during these moments, like her portrayal of Brian, a student who loves to sing and is usually amped up on Red Bull. When she plays that part, Golden the actress disappears and in her place is the vivacious teenager.
The students are all individuals but similar to any teenager found at the typical high school. They curse, they’re opinionated and they are courageous, trapped in a school system that treats them like prisoners.
It is this last fact that Nilaja gradually realizes, and it horrifies her when she sees the obvious parallel between her students and the convicts she asks them to portray in Our Country’s Good. That production is about a group of Australian prisoners who put on a play.
While the students are portrayed realistically, the adult characters come up short in comparison. Strangely, it is the adults who are stereotypical: the unexperienced teacher, the strict principal, the idealistic teaching artist and the omnipresent and wise janitor.
It seemed that these characters were cut from the typical high school plotline. Golden’s mannerisms and voice during these roles were initially forced and unnatural, especially as the English teacher, Ms. Tam. It was as if she were uncomfortable in those skins. As the play progressed, the manners became more fluid, but in the end, it was Golden’s performances as the schoolchildren that were most memorable.
The resolution, with the kids’ performance of Our Country’s Good and a summation of the characters' fates, contained a touch of cliché. There is a last-minute performance from the unlikely performer, narrations from heaven and a celebrity marriage. But the play is honest in leaving some resolutions open and not hiding everything behind a veil of optimism.
Despite its small flaws, No Child… is honest about the gritty details of modern inner-city schools which allows its message to reverberate long after the play has finished.
What: No Child… by Nilaja Sun
Where: Syracuse Stage's Storch Theatre, 820 E. Genesee St.
When: Now until Oct. 10
Length: 70 minutes
Tickets: Adults, $20; Students, $15