By AUDREY WELLS
Using improvisation, the opening-night production of "No Child" at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts excited its audience. It jarred me right out of my comfort zone, even before entering the theater, and again after being seated, waiting for the lights to go down — or in the case of this classroom-like set, for the bell to ring and the play to begin.
Short of going through a metal detector as the students at Martin Luther King Jr. High in the Bronx (the real school where the play is set) are subjected to each day, we knew that we had entered the world of an underfunded urban school, with its graffiti-laden molded plastic chairs, stacks of books serving as desks and metallic fencing defining the back wall. The lighting design even included fluorescent lights so typical in institutional settings. I half-expected them to buzz and sputter.
Originally a one-woman show written and performed by teaching artist Nilaja Sun, "No Child" is based on Sun's experience working with sophomores in this "poorest of congressional districts" to produce a play in six weeks. The University of Illinois Department of Theatre production uses 16 actors and includes the role of Sun, who wrote herself in as a character.
"No Child" describes itself as a "play within a play within a play," and indeed it is. The challenging script Sun brings to her students in the Bronx is Timberlake Wertenbaker's "Our Country's Good," which is about a real theatrical production from 1789 performed by prisoners in an Australian penal colony. Sun's students use theater to power their imaginations and identify with these characters, prisoners from another time and place.
The audience Wednesday night at Krannert was invited to bridge a gap, too, and travel to a multi-ethnic inner-city school in 21st-century America. "No Child" illustrates the age-old lesson — and suggests we seem too often to forget it — that the arts, and specifically theater arts, are vital and should be highly valued and practiced, especially in schools.
The strength of this play is in its authenticity. The situation runs the risk of falling into clichs of classroom dramas where dedicated teachers prevail and seemingly hopeless students find courage and triumph. But "No Child" comes directly from the author's experience, and that honesty is apparent in every line and action.
Some of the turns in the plot are predictable, but even when something expected happens, like a student who is a no-show for the final performance, we recognize the truth in it. To better understand the highs and lows of a teacher's job and the cacophony of influences high school students cope with, particularly in a low-income urban setting, see this play.
Director Latrelle Bright works in community-based theater, serving as the UI's program coordinator for Inner Voices Social Issues Theater. She was an excellent fit for this production, with its serious and moving message.
The title "No Child" refers to a contentious former federal program for education, but as the play program says, the setting of the play is "now," and the sentiment that no child be left behind is hard to argue with.
I left the play motivated to do volunteer work in schools, and my theater-going companion was eager to discuss the complex issues raised by the play. It worked for us.
The adaptation from a one-woman show to an ensemble cast left the director with some awkward problems to solve, like how to stage dialogue when only one character speaks and how best to use the playing space. The action moves swiftly, except a movement interlude went on a bit too long, losing its point, and there is no intermission.
We were dropped into the world of the play, carried through a full range of emotions, from hope to despair and all in between, and not dismissed until the last bell, allowing a full immersion that satisfied.
The authenticity of the script was made all the more powerful by the sincere performances of the actors. Most of the student characters were played by undergraduates, close enough to the high school experience to look the parts without much of a stretch. I believed every one of them, and as a retired teacher, felt I had met most of them.
Classrooms are complete communities unto themselves. The actors in "No Child" understood this and brought life to these very real characters. The costumes and make-up lent a helping hand. Those playing the adults also carried off their parts well, with kudos going to Tanisha Pyron in the role of Sun, who assumed the position of visiting teacher with mastery. Her character is the driving force behind the play, the direct voice of the playwright, and a good performance is required for the whole production to succeed.
Another key character is Janitor Baron, who narrates the play, offers the only music to be heard with his soothing singing and whose maturity provides historical perspective. Preston "Wigasi" Brant in the role of Janitor Baron carried off the elder figure gracefully.
"No Child" is intended for mature audiences because of the language used. Some might be upset by the harshness of what is heard, but mature high school students should not be steered away from this contemporary play, based in reality, with a lot to say.
If you go
What: University of Illinois Department of Theatre presents "No Child," a play by Nilaja Sun, directed by guest director Latrelle Bright
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday
Where: Studio Theatre, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, 500 S. Goodwin Ave., U
Tickets: adults, $16; senior citizens and students, $15; UI students and youths, $10
Information: 333-6280; http://www.krannertcenter.com .
Note: This production contains adult content.
Audrey Wells is a freelance writer from Urbana.