‘no-child’ at Berkeley Rep

On Christmas two years ago, anticipating our much delayed trip, the kids had given us a ‘certificate’ to a performance at San Francisco Opera, Ballet, or Symphony, for when we finally got to the west coast. Much distracted by getting to know our grandkids, we were slow to make plans, and though we are opera fans, the current offering of Das Rheingold wasn’t one of our favorites. Ballet season was over, so the symphony looked the most promising.

Then, by pure good fortune, we heard a lengthy review, discussion and interview on NPR about a show currently running at the Berkeley Rep, called ‘no child…’ and knew that this would be our cultural Christmas present.

Nilaja Sun has worked as a teaching artist in New York for nine years, and she wrote this play about her experiences and was its sole performer. The stage at Berkeley Rep is a 180º amphitheater set-up and the set consisted of a water-stained back wall and well-cleaned linoleum floor of a run-down, inner city high school in the Bronx, with a handful of metal and melamine classroom chairs, a door to the janitor’s closet, and another door to the rest of the school.

The atmosphere drew us in with a loud schoolhouse squawk from the PA system and a typical, officious announcement: telling us there would be no intermission and all electronic devices should be shut off. After that, a skinny old black janitor, wearing a white shirt and black pants, pushed a mop across the linoleum in the early morning light and ruminated on the school (he’d been here 30 years, outlasting the white janitorial staff who used to shun him when this school’s population consisted mostly of white immigrants’ children.) His role resembled the stage manager in Thornton Wilder’s ‘Our Town’, except that every gesture, every thoughtful pause, every wry aside to people in the front rows, took us deeper into his unique heart and history, until he was utterly real and no longer a role or chorus. He was the first of 17 characters, who Nilaja Sun would play in the next 70 minutes.

We have never seen anyone command such spellbound silence from an audience! We hardy dared breathe, because every word from each being she conjured forth was so subtly important. We were watching a master shape-shifter, whose felt/sense memory of so many she’d taught now translated down to the simplest signature gestures that helped us identify each character. The security guard at the metal detector, the timid and ineffectual home-room teacher, the officious principal, the intelligent but disaffected black alpha male student, the ADHD macho Latino side-kick, the drama queen, all hauteur and studied allure, the newly-pregnant girl, all revealed themselves to us, and to their new ‘teaching artiste’, whose job it would be to teach, cast, and direct this class of 27 ‘thespians’ in an foreign play about a prison, to be presented in six weeks, before their ‘friends, class-mates, and loved-ones’.

Now, I realize that there was only ever one person physically on the stage, but Nilaja Sun skillfully and seamlessly wove her way through so many identities, that my heart concretely remembers all the wonderful beings she materialized: their doubts, dreams, and determination moving us all to tears. The U.S tour of ‘no child…’ ended June 11. Nilaja Sun will be flying to Kenya, to be a teaching artiste there.

Strolling out into the cool Berkeley night, Noah, Cara, Bruce, and I stopped at a Tropical Express for ‘bubble tea’. A new adventure for us, ‘bubble tea’ contains thick, dark, tapiocas the size of garbanzo beans, settled at the bottom of iced or hot tea in such flavors as ginger, mango, almond, chai, hazelnut…the list goes on. The fun part, besides the wonderful flavors, is the large diameter straw, which pops the tapiocas into the mouth: a delightful sensation! It was a perfect place to sit and talk about the show before the ride home. What a lovely Christmas present!

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