CAMBRIDGE - Nilaja Sun's "No Child . . .," a one-woman play drawn from her experiences teaching theater in some of New York City's toughest public schools, teeters precariously on the edge of sentimental cliche. But it is saved, gloriously, by Sun's virtuosic performance, by her deep empathy, and by her intelligent, clear-eyed, and sometimes painfully funny take on the absurdly dysfunctional state of public education.
In this award-winning off-Broadway hit, making its New England debut at the American Repertory Theatre, Sun creates 16 distinctive characters - students, teachers, administrators, and a visiting "teaching artist" very much like herself - and through them tells a familiar but powerful story.
"Miss Sun" has been hired to spend six weeks in a troubled 10th-grade classroom of the fictional Malcolm X High School in the Bronx, reading and analyzing a play with the students and then leading them in staging a production of it for their family and friends. If you've seen "To Sir With Love" or "Up the Down Staircase" or even "Welcome Back, Kotter," you may feel as if you already know how this goes.
But as Sun's quietly wise narrator, the school's longtime janitor, admonishes us early on: "Hush! You don't know unless you've been in the schools on a day-to-day basis. Hush! You don't know unless you been a teacher, administrator, student, or custodial staff. Hush! Cuz you could learn a little some- thin'. "
And we do learn, as we watch Sun (with an impressive array of accents and mannerisms) portray the frazzled first-year teacher who can't get her students to sit down and listen, the smart-mouthed kid whose bravado slowly falls away to reveal a touching enthusiasm for the theater, the finger-snapping diva of a classmate who's smarter than she knows, and even the bossy security guard who operates the mandatory metal detectors at the school's entrance.
Partly we learn because Sun doesn't shove her lessons down our throats. Those metal detectors, for instance - she doesn't lecture us about them; she just makes us reflect, offhandedly at first but unavoidably, on how strange it is that we have made our schools look so much like prisons.
That reflection is underscored by the play Miss Sun chooses to enact with her students. "No, it isn't 'A Raisin in the Sun,' " she tells them, lightly. It's "Our Country's Good," Timberlake Wertenbaker's drama about convicts in colonial Australia putting on a play. After her first day on the job, Miss Sun berates herself for choosing a play where these kids will play prisoners - but then realizes it makes perfect sense, because they are imprisoned by a system that is failing them and by their own low expectations of ever escaping it.
As the title implies, "No Child . . ." takes a dim view of the test-driven "reforms" imposed by the No Child Left Behind Act, but Sun wisely lets her story make the point for her rather than hammering it home with lectures. Over the 80 minutes we spend with her and her vividly realized characters, we stop seeing them as "overwhelmed teachers" or "troubled students" and get to know them more simply: Miss Tam, Shondrika, Chris, Jerome.
Each one, in Sun's luminous performance, is a lively, unforgettable human being. She switches from one to the next with dazzling expertise, but her great technical skill is the least of her gifts. Far more important, and more lasting, is the humanity she brings to her characters and their stories. By reminding us of the actual children who are, for all the rhetoric, getting left behind, "No Child . . ." reminds us why we simply must do better for this next generation of our fellow citizens.
"Theater is an expression of civilization," says one of the most recalcitrant students, at a critical moment when Miss Sun is ready to quit. She stares at him in surprise, and so do we. It takes a minute to realize that he's quoting a line from the play they're studying. But he's also saying something that Sun, clearly, believes deep in her heart. And by teaching her students that line, she has taught them - and us - its truth.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.