Inside Inner-City Schools

Play Highlights Challenges of No Child Left Behind

Posted January 25, 2008 at 4:46pm

A beam of light streams across the stage of the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in downtown Washington, imitating the sunrise at the fictional Malcolm X High School in the Bronx. Nilaja Sun limps onto the stage, sweeping her way across with a broom.

But as of this moment, she is not Nilaja Sun. With her jaw pushed forward and one shoulder raised, she is Janitor Baron, narrator of the play “No Child …” Seconds later, she is Ms. Sun, a new “teaching artist,” eager to start her first day at Malcolm X.

Sun’s one-woman performance is based on her own experience teaching theater at an inner-city high school, where she battled the effects of the No Child Left Behind Act, a controversial education law that was passed in 2001.

The law sets standards of accountability for schools with the aim of motivating better educational achievement. It requires students in certain grade levels to take standardized tests in order for the schools to receive funding. But critics say this encourages teachers to teach to the test and that starving under-performing schools of resources is counterproductive.

In the course of describing her struggles to teach in a school where arts have been scaled back because the school no longer qualifies for grants and students are resistant to learning, Sun transforms into a cast of about 17 characters — among them six rebellious students and herself.

Sun, who wrote as well as performed in the play, may have best captured the overall sentiment of the faculty and staff as the janitor.

“I don’t know nothing about no No Child, Yes Child, Who Child, What Child,” he grumbles as he straightens out classroom chairs. “I do know there’s a hole in the fourth-floor ceiling ain’t been fixed since ’87, all the bathrooms on the third floor, they all broke. Now, who’s accountable for dat?”

The play follows the traditional storyline of an inspirational movie about teachers, but director Hal Brooks said Sun’s one-woman performance makes it different.

“It’s only happening with one person and that makes it all the more dynamic,” he said. “If we had to do it with 18 people, it wouldn’t be as interesting.”

Sun said the characters were all based on the most common types of students she came across in her nine years teaching in New York’s inner-city schools.

“I wanted to write a piece that showed the energy and soul of kids nowadays, especially kids in public schools,” Sun said.

Sun received a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts to write the play. She said she wanted to convey the pressure that teachers in public schools feel.

“So many of the kids look like me,” Sun said. “So there’s a feeling … that if I disappoint these kids, it’s like disappointing my people.”

Brooks said the play was difficult to direct because all of his concentration was on one person.

He added that he and Sun focused mainly on her transitions among characters. To do that, Sun had to use the least movement possible to make the individual characters stand out from each other.

“It’s important to be able to readily identify each character, so even if you don’t know the names, you know who they are and can automatically make that transition with her,” he said.

Brooks said that though he’s not a political person, the play’s message is clear.

“The big argument the play is putting forth is that kids are not going to succeed if we, as a community, don’t stand behind them,” he said. “You see it with the kids in the play that they need the support of parents and teachers. What I think is clear is that the kids can’t put on a play until they get the teacher who can take control of the classroom.”

Sun also said she doesn’t consider herself a political person, but hopes that all of Washington’s lawmakers — and others unfamiliar with the public school system — will see the show.

“You think you know the schools, but you don’t. So it would be nice for them to experience it for 65 minutes,” Sun said. “Maybe their hearts can open up a little more.”

“No Child …” will be playing at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company until Feb. 17. Tickets are available at or at the box office for $35-$57.