This show's title suggests it assails an especially reviled piece of school legislation, Bush's No Child Left Behind. But the script critiques mostly by inference. Rather, as director David Maslow said in an interview before the show's run began, it's a play about an actor on a stage. And as that one-woman cast herself, Rita Gregory, said, it's also about giving voice to a bunch of neglected inner-city high school students who wouldn't be so privileged otherwise.
Gregory was apparently the first solo actor, other than New York-based playwright Nilaja Sun herself, to portray all 16 characters. But any doubts the audience had that a 53-year-old actor could play a teacher half her age, and a bunch of teen-agers besides, quickly evaporated: While this was fast-paced storytelling, the array of gesture and vocalisms Gregory deployed to create a classroom all by herself might have been engrossing enough without a story.
Though Ms. Sun (the character) voiced criticisms of a society that had forgotten its children, the script concentrates on what happens inside the classroom's walls. Sun (the script is based on the playwright's personal experiences) is a "teaching artist" rallying the kids in the Bronx to stage Our Country's Good, a contemporary play about some 18th-century Australian convicts staging a still-older play. Implicit is the lack of cultural enrichment in the students' lives, but you have to really read between the lines to discern there's a federal law being pilloried.
Moreover, despite its play-within-a-play-within-a-play structure, No Child ... is quite simple as narrative (and, as CP contributor Ted Hoover pointed out in his review, essentially devoid of irony). But its considerable humanity derives no less from the intimacy of the theatrical experience than from Gregory, who after the Feb. 19 performance talked with the audience about the show.
Gregory knows kids as a mother and as head of the junior-high stage program at Pitt's Falk School. But she drew her characterizations from numerous sources, modeling the school's principal on a woman diner in a GEICO commercial, for instance, and borrowing one female student's distinctive vocal clicks from film actress Rosie Perez.
Still, all her craft wouldn't have meant much if it didn't ultimately point away from the performer and toward the characters performed. A couple of Pittsburgh Public Schools teachers who sat behind me said after the show that Gregory had "nailed it" -- both the kids and what it's like to work with them.
But I was especially moved by two moments in the play (which closed Feb. 22). In one, earnest Sun tells a colleague, "These kids are me: Brown skin, brown eyes -- stuck." It's a nice moment of empathy, but I think Sun (and Gregory) topped it with the scene where one tough-guy student, who's been seemingly disinterested, recites for Sun a long passage of dialogue he's memorized. The teacher is stunned; the kid, obviously proud, says, "I do my thing" -- making the assignment a choice, an act of self-determination that cements his dignity for the audience, the teacher, and himself.