The inner-city teacher genre has no lack of examples from which to draw on. In particular, Hollywood has run with the theme with movies such as Precious, The Class, Stand and Deliver and Lean On Me.
Adapting the genre to the stage is Nilaja Sun’s No Child…, currently playing in-person at the BMO Theatre Centre or streamed to your device at home.
No Child… takes its title from the No Child Left Behind Act in the United States. Established in 2015, the Act held schools accountable for how kids learned and achieved by levelling the playing field for disadvantaged students. It was meant to target minorities and those students dealing with poverty, special needs and those with no or limited English skills.
It is also based on the playwright’s real-life experiences teaching in some of New York’s most challenging schools.
An amalgam of Sun’s time teaching, No Child… tells the story of an idealistic young teaching artist who steps into the fictional Malcolm X High School in The Bronx to lead a group of grade ten students in a production of the not-so-fictional Our Country’s Good.
And while a Restoration comedy about a group of convicts in Australia in 1780 may seem an odd choice for these inner-city youth to tackle, both Sun’s play and the play-within-the-play speak to the transformative nature of art. It is also an inspired choice for audiences who have missed that very thing in the past few months.
With licencing offering two versions played by either a single performer (male or female) or up to 16 actors, the Arts Club has mounted the solo work. The same version Sun herself initially performed, it is not only a choice made to adhere to the current pandemic restrictions, but its inherent theatricality also helps to elevate it’s sometimes cliched story and stereotypes.
With its dizzying transitions between 16 characters, it is easy to see how it could quickly go off the rails. Thankfully, Vancouver actor Ali Watson handles it all with skill (Watson shares the role during the run with Celia Aloma).
Under Omari Newton’s direction, Watson effectively transitions between each of the play’s characters. From the narrating janitor to the meek Miss Tam and the half dozen or so students, Watson uses her voice, thanks to accent coach Jack Wallace, and body language, to inhabit each character. Finding the right balance between humour and pathos, she leads us to the genre’s requisite, albeit predictable, transformation.
This review is based on the livestream of Ali Watson’s opening performance. It is offered, along with Celia Aloma’s opening performance, as an alternative for those who are not ready to return to the theatre.
Under the livestream direction of Raugi Yu, the multi-camera set-up provides full-stage shots akin to a real-life performance but with the added benefit of close-ups that you do not usually get. It isn’t always perfect, but unlike some of the over-produced or single-camera theatrical recordings offered during the pandemic, there is an immediacy that provides a more than satisfying alternative to the live in-person experience.
Given the show is performed both live and via a recording, the technical aspects must do double-duty. Lighting designer Gerald King and sound designer Owen Belton effectively move us from scene to scene, and Kimira Reddy and Vanka Salim’s set translates well to video.
Ultimately, while No Child… breaks no new ground in the inner-city school genre, thanks to Watson’s skillful performance, it is a welcome return to the theatre. Like the students in Sun’s play, it also reminds us of just how transformative live theatre can be.
No Child… by Nilaja Sun. Directed by Omari Newton. An Arts Club Theatre Company production on stage at the BMO Theatre Centre (162 W 1st Ave, Vancouver) or via on-demand livestream until November 8. Visit artsclub.com for tickets and information.