St. Louis Broadway World
by Chris Gibson
With No Child, playwright Nilaja Sun brings to light the troubling failure of the “No Child Left Behind” program. It's a fascinating look at one teacher/artist's attempt to reach a group of student who describe themselves as the worst in the school. Conceived as a one woman play, the work gives an actress the opportunity to portray a number of characters from teachers, to students, to the principal herself, as well as a sage old custodian who acts as a sort of narrator for this play within a play within a play. The Black Rep's thoughtful production is superbly performed and directed, and is so socially relevant that it demands to be seen.
At Malcolm X High things look pretty bleak. The bathrooms are busted on the third floor and there are various leaks that haven't been dealt with sufficiently. Enter Miss Sun, who hopes to provide a ray of hope for these impoverished students through a six week program that will end in the performance of a play. But, she doesn't count on running into as many brick walls as the students and teachers provide, and she nearly kills the program when the students vote not to perform. However, they do eventually come around, and their moment in the sun, so to speak, is one that will elevate them, at least for the moment, above their own meager expectations (and those of the people around them).
Patrese McClain does a marvelous and seamless job switching between 16 different characters, all of whom are unique in their own way. Whether she's the wise old Janitor Baron, the mouthy Shondrika, the crazy student Brian, the surly security guard, or an Asian teacher in over her head, she has each voice and attitude delineated perfectly. It's a tour de force of a performance and the interpretations are well defined throughout.
Joe Hanrahan's direction keeps McClain focused and always on point as the show progresses. There's enough movement and action portrayed to maintain interest and keep this from being too static, and the pace is fairly brisk over the piece's 80 minutes or so. Brian Purlee's set conjures up the school with crisp efficiency, and Sean Savoie's lighting and projections set the mood for each scene. Linda Kennedy's costume for McClain works well, and Robin Weatherall's sound design also adds necessary atmosphere to the production.
No Child is a powerful show, and McClain, under Hanrahan's direction is excellent. The Black Rep's production continues through April 1, 2012 at the Grandel Theatre.