Singing “Trouble in Mind,” an old janitor with a pushbroom introduces himself and the school he’s sweeping up, Malcolm X Vocational High in the Bronx, and a cast of characters who range from a broker-turned-new teacher (“she saw an ad in the IRT, offering a lifetime of glorious purpose”) to various “at-risk” African-American and Latino students, their driven principal and the visiting teaching artist for a drama project, Nilaja Sun.
But all the characters—janitor, kids, principal and visiting artist—are Nilaja Sun herself, who wrote and now performs her solo piece, No Child ... on the Berkeley Rep Thrust Stage.
There’s nothing new about representations of teachers working with “education-proof” students. There have been commercial successes like Up the Down Staircase (both book and movie) or Dead Poets Society, and the realer (and wryer) pages of James Herndon, a UC alumnus, detailing such classrooms in the Bay Area of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Starting with The Way It Spozed to Be, teacher-student encounters have made bestsellers and good box office at least since Goodbye, Mr. Chipps.
And solo acts are even more familiar fare these days, especially autobiographical material with a dose of contemporary social relevance.
What makes Sun’s No Child ... stand out is the slightly laconic framing device of the narrative, which gives her high energy performance a crisper, less sentimentally personal edge, emphasizing the remarkable tempo and articulation of her delivery, as she whirls through the poses and physical routines of her subjects, seeming always to pirouette gracefully back into character as herself, dispensing with the need for her own exposition.
That’s handily filled in by the old janitor, folksy and canny, who’s seen it all since the ’50s, when it was Robert Moses High, mostly Italian kids, no other Negro janitor (and he later looks ahead, averring it will be “St. Tupac Shakur Prep” someday, in the tongue-in-cheek wish-fulfillment denouement of the show), watching them all come and go: “In the ’60s it was the Panthers with their breakfast program ... asking me, ‘How’re you going to fight the Man today?’ and I’d say, ‘With my broom and ammonia,’ and they laughed—they all gone now.”
Sun comes to the class after a funny, one-way scene with her landlord, promising the rent after the class is through, wading through his nostalgia for the discipline of the days of Pope Pius XII with “after going to Catholic schools for 13 years, I didn’t even know I was black until I was in college,” wishing him “a happy Lent ...”
The cowed “new teacher,” the ex-broker, welcomes her to the classroom with demoralized and demoralizing platitudes, skittering nervously around the room, apologizing for asking the kids to knock off the verbal abuse.
Sun explains to them they have six weeks to “analyse, memorize and perform” a play, Our Country’s Good, “a play-within-a-play-within-a-play” (as the evening spills out before us) about Australian convicts two centuries ago. “No, it’s not Raisin in the Sun.”
“We gotta read? Oh hell no!” the students protest. Not only read, Sun asserts, but create community. “The last time I created a community,” one student blurts out, “a cop came.”
But she succeeds in getting them to think of themselves as stageworthy, somehow, despite the fact none has ever even seen a play, much less been up on stage. Public speaking is everybody’s greatest fear, Sun declares, even greater than death. “They never lived in the ‘hood,” avers a student.
The terminology’s a bit thick for them, too: “Thespian? I ain’t no Rosie O’Donnell!”
Somehow it all works, at least a little, until the “new teacher” quits, is replaced by a Russian teacher who can only bark at them—and the students act out, once again seeming proud they’re so recalcitrant, “the worst class in the school.”
Sun tries to quit, saying she just needs a break to be an actor, get health insurance, pay the IRS ... but the kids end up drawing her back, and the hysterical one-woman sketch of the show they put on, despite a Latino kid (whose mother Sun explains the project to as “uno spectacolo”) not showing up to rehearsals because his brother’s been killed, and the lead missing the curtain because he has to babysit, is a polyphonic “spectacolo” indeed.
The story and even the insouciant, whirlwind performance of No Child ... place it firmly in the category of inspirational and exemplary experiences. But the real stakes involved, the real dangers to these young lives are always shown to be present, albeit sketched in quickly without much pathos, never overwrought, the humor both playing off of and free from stereotype.
Sun herself is as quick as her hip-hopper charges—she has to perform them, after all, not just valorize them—but she also sees them with a smiling, slightly jaundiced eye, as when she introduces a runthrough with: “First the tableau.” Tableau? “Yeah, I thought first you might want to see them in a frozen, nonspeaking state for awhile.”
NO CHILD ...
Through June 1 at Berkeley Repertory
Theatre, 2025 Addison St. $33-$69.