Curtains: Powerful and Engaging, Actors Theatre's No Child Hits Home -- and School

Platitudes we all oughta write on the mirror in lipstick or shaving cream, as the case may be: All of us can make miracles where one of us will fail. It [everything, by the way] takes a village. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. Need a little wheatgrass shot with your daily affirmations? Catch Nilaja Sun's short one-woman performance, No Child, currently presented by Actors Theatre at the Herberger Stage West downtown.

It's a near-perfect play, painful, redemptive, sobering, galvanizing, chronicling Sun's six-week residency as a teaching theater artist in a fictional composite Bronx high school called, for the time being, Malcolm X Vocational. (Sun's framing character is a custodian who's been at the school since it opened in the '50s, when black residents were just moving in to replace the former European-spawned marginalized population. Flash forward. "How are you fighting The Man, brother?" "With my grade D ammonia.")

We see Sun the struggling actor, Sun the heartbroken, discouraged savior wanna-be, Sun the educated, self-street-cred-doubting, elitism-fearing professional. We see the teachers: the great, the useless, the overwhelmed. But most hauntingly, we see a small group of students who've already learned that everyone and everything in their world is designed to betray and disappoint them. They don't just disrespect authority; they disrespect one another and themselves.

Sun the actor/author portrays each one with virtuoso physicality and vocal mastery, and then Sun the character draws each one out, delicately, brilliantly, finding the connection to win the admiration and trust of each, as crises ignite and the residency concludes, leaving all of us with the hope and confidence that maybe just one life was made better, and that's all it takes. "Miss, you know I'm pregnant -- Miss, don't cry!"

Completely separately from how great No Child is and how you all should go, especially if you're a teacher, student, or parent, and it will amuse, delight, astonish, shame, and change you for the better, I have to say that my shattered innocence aches wistfully when I look back over Actors Theatre's season, made up partly of tiny shows brought in pre-packaged from outside the Valley. Their slogan, "Off Broadway -- Just Downtown," gets more and more literal, and I just have to tell myself that the little company my ASU classmates and teachers founded still employs plenty of local artists, and other little companies have started up over the decades to show off local talent, and this is all really for the audience, anyhow.

No Child continues through Sunday, May 9, at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe Street. Tickets are $31 to $45; click here to order or call 602-252-8497. Pay less with these screaming deals: daily student ($13) and adult (half-price) rush, $20 tickets to the first 20 people to ask the box office for the "20 for $20" deal each performance day, and $20 teacher pricing -- just tell the box office the name of the school where you teach.

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