- Title: No Child...
- Written by: Nilaja Sun
- Director: Omari Newton
- Actors: Ali Watson and Celia Aloma in alternating performances
- Company: The Arts Club Theatre Company
- Venue: Newmont Stage at the BMO Theatre Centre
- City: Vancouver
- Year: Until November 8, 2020
I saw a play in an actual theatre with a live audience and a set and lighting and an actor, in the flesh. I laughed, I cried. That could be it; that could be the review. Bravo. Ten out of ten. Encore!
There was more, of course, to my theatre experience than just being back in the theatre for the first time in more than half a year. But that, in and of itself, felt momentous.
And it was. The Arts Club Theatre Company in Vancouver is mounting three shows this fall, all one-person, one-act plays, in socially distant seating configurations with safety precautions in place.
We had to check-in at a shielded desk, confirm that we met all the health criteria to enter (you can also fill out a form ahead of time online), provide a phone number for contact-tracing, sanitize our hands on entry and keep our masks on throughout. There were no programs, the bar was closed, there were no patrons milling about in the lobby.
But when the lights went down, we were at a show. Everything felt heightened: how the clever set design contributed to both the mood and the physical flow; the evocative sound design that allowed our imaginations to travel to New York; the feel of the seats, even (very comfortable).
Artistic director Ashlie Corcoran made a wise selection to reopen her micro-season. Nilaja Sun’s No Child... is a 2006 play that deals with racial and economic inequality, gaps in the education system and the value of art, specifically theatre. It is a challenging piece for the performer, who takes on 16 different characters over the 65 minutes.
The play was inspired by Sun’s own experiences as a teaching artist in the Bronx. Ms. Sun, the character, is assigned to what the students tell her is the worst class at Malcolm X High School; she has a few weeks to work with the group – bored students who come late to class, swear with abandon, disrespect their teachers (who keep quitting) and face severe challenges at home. It feels like everyone has given up on them. Ms. Sun has other plans.
She assigns them Our Country’s Good, the 1988 Olivier Award-winning play by Timberlake Wertenbaker about a group of 18th-century convicts in Australia who put on the 1706 play The Recruiting Officer by Irish writer George Farquhar. So it’s a play within a play within a play. Each of the plays demonstrates the healing power of art, the possibilities of rehabilitation and the meaning of freedom.
In a global pandemic, in the middle of a revolution led by Black Lives Matter, at a time when many of us have turned to art to help us through extreme isolation and panic and every other issue this has brought to the fore, No Child... is just what the doctor ordered.
In a clever COVID-19-era strategy, there are two separate production teams, with two different women in the role in alternate performances. I saw the opening night (it was actually afternoon) performance with Ali Watson. A few hours later, there was a second opening night performance starring Celia Aloma (which I did not attend).
The role requires the actor to transform from Ms. Sun to Ms. Tam, a frightened rookie teacher, to an authoritarian Russian substitute to the school principal to the janitor (the play’s narrator) to a bunch of students, a grandmother and others. It is a Herculean acting task.
Watson pulled it off – with multiple accents, speech affectations and approaches. She was young, old, male, female, Jamaican, Australian. With only her immense talent and a scarf as a signalling prop – stuffed in her pocket as the caretaker, around her neck as the teacher, wrapped around her head as the metal-detector-wielding security guard.
There was the odd stumble, and the transitions weren’t always super smooth, but Watson did a formidable job.
“No Child...” refers to the Bush administration’s “No Child Left Behind” education policy, which promised to close the achievement gap and even out imbalances in public education in the U.S. (I think we all know how that turned out.)
The issue remains excruciatingly relevant, especially as the pandemic has exposed huge inequity when it comes to access to education.
The script can be overly sentimental at times, and there are a few clichés and some too-obvious gags. I laughed anyway. Did it ever feel good to laugh in a group (even a small group; there were only about 25 of us in the audience).
For people who don’t feel comfortable going to the theatre or don’t live in Vancouver, there is an option to watch a recording on the Arts Club’s website of either opening-night performance for $19. You’ll be entertained, challenged and – not to be discounted – you’ll be supporting a worthy endeavour that speaks to the central theme of the play: the creation of art in spite of it all.
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