One woman. One problem. One truth.

Writer and performer Nilaja Sun calls out the elephant in the room. Photo by Carol Rosegg

Sun’s ‘No Child’ educates audience, takes schools to task

BY JERRY TALLMER | Maybe I like him because his name is Jerome (though mine is not).

Maybe I like him because he’s the kind of wise-guy street-talking inner-city classroom cynic — “Ay yo! This is some white shit” — who puts his finger on why he understands Ms. Sun’s play, “Our Country’s Good,” about an 18th-century cargo of convicts, only too well: “Because we treated like convicts everyday. ”

Security Guard to Shondrika, the class vamp:  Girl, girl! Don’t you pass me wifout goin’ tru da detector…Go back. Ya belt…Go back. Ya earrings…Go back. Ya shoes. Don’t sass me!…Go back. Ya hair tings…

But most of all I like Jerome for jerking despairing tenth-grade teacher-artist Ms. Sun back to her task of getting her play to curtain-up, 24 hours from now, at Malcolm X High School in the Bronx.

“The theatre is an expression of civilization…”

“What?” exclaims the startled Ms. Sun;

“We belong to a great country which has spawned great playwrights…” Jerome continues, in character.

Yes, ay yo, the boy has memorized his part…and if you are me, your heart skips a beat.

Of course “Our Country’s Good” isn’t Nilaja Sun’s own play, strictly speaking. It’s Timberlake Wertenbaker’s sharp sure 1988 drama about the 1789 shipload of British convicts forced to put on a performance in godforsaken Australia of George Farquhar’s “The Recruiting Officer” — “a play within a play within a play,” as Mr. Baron, Malcolm X High School’s ancient black janitor-narrator, puts it between chitchats somewhere up there with his new friend, Arthur Miller.

The play at the core of all these layers is an achingly true dramatic visitation called “No Child…” — written by, and all roles (Jerome, Shondrika, Philip, Brian, other students, Ms. Sun. Mrs. Kennedy, other teachers, Mr. Baron the janitor, bullying security guards, bullying principal) brought to life by — skinny, coffee-colored, cheerfully serious Nilaja Sun. Sun was herself a teacher-artist in New York City’s public schools around the five boroughs for eight years before “No Child…” turned into a huge smash at the little Barrow Street Theatre in Greenwich Village from late 2007 to late 2008.

Sun and her play are now headed back there for a sort of anniversary engagement, from June 5 to July 31.

The three dots in the title are important and intentional. They are reminders of George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind Act.”

“‘No Child’ was the big elephant in the room when I started on this,” she says.

And the truth is also a big elephant. Ms. Sun finally bursts out to her co-teacher Mrs. Kennedy:

“We’re not teaching these kids how to be leaders. We’re just getting them ready for jail. Take off you belt, take off your shoes, go back, go back, go back…”

The other day she was asked if, in performance, she ever makes a mistake.

“Not really,” she replies. “I’m a stickler for every line, every stage direction.”

Does she ever get bored with it?

“Never. I wrote it so I could have a really good time on stage” — a better time, perhaps, than in the TV commercials and such that help pay the rent and the IRS.

“Oy!” she says at mention of those initials.

“No Child…” was commissioned by Epic Theatre Ensemble co-founder Ron Russell in 2004 to show the public school system’s wear and tear on teachers, students, janitors, everybody — even security guards. A grant from the New York State Council on the Arts made the writing possible.

Nilaja Sun was living in Brooklyn, writing one-woman shows for herself — including “Blues for a Gray Sun,” in honor of Spalding Gray (whom she never knew) — when she tackled “No Child…” She now lives in Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan.

Where does she get her ideas?

“A lot of stuff happens in the mirror,” she said to this playgoer a few years ago. “In the shower. In the subway. In sleep. In dreams.”

Nilaja means “Peacemaker” in Yoruba, she says, and the roots of this daughter of Paul and Dolores Freda are half African, half Puerto Rican.

She was born November 16, 1974, grew up at the corner of Henry and Montgomery Streets on the Lower East Side — “right next to Chinatown, with synagogues everywhere, and Puerto Ricans and Africans” — and spent 13 years with zipped lips whenever a nun came into the classroom at St. Joseph’s Parochial School, about two blocks from the Barrow Street Theatre.

Not quite the same as “Malcolm X High” in the Bronx — or, for that matter, the real Martin Luther King, Jr. High School at Lincoln Center, where the real Ms. Sun also taught and artisted.

With security guards?

“Ohhh!” she gasps in affirmation.

“No Child…” has now played in New York (333 Barrow Street performances), Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Ireland, Edinburgh — and back to New York. People stop her on the street and ask: “When are we going to get to see you?” or “When are you coming to our school?”

What’s it like to be a little famous?

“Well, it’s nice. Even Jerome could tell you that. Even Jerome, if you caught him in the right light, would tell you that.”

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