I was excited to see Sonja Parks in the revival of No Child… at Pillsbury House Theatre. I’m a fan of Parks’s work generally, and the actress received an Ivey Award for her performance in the production’s initial run last year. Unfortunately, it wasn’t five minutes into the production when I realized that I had seen the play before. It’s the same plot that we’ve seen in To Sir with Love, Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds, and dozens of other movies about teachers making a difference in students’ lives against all odds.
The plot goes like this: Young, idealistic teacher gets hired in “tough” school, only to find that no one respects him/her and all the students have various dramas that they are dealing with outside of the classroom. The teacher tries to inspire them, has some success, and then almost gives up. In the end, the students succeed beyond the teacher’s wildest dreams.
|no child…, presented through march 14 at pillsbury house theatre. for tickets ($15-$20) and information, see pillsburyhousetheatre.org.|
It’s a nice story. It’s also a story that happens a lot in real life. There truly are heroic teachers out there, changing the lives of students every day, giving them hope through books, through math, or through acting class. It’s good to be reminded of that, but the story has been so often told that any new telling needs to in some way distinguish itself from the others.
Parks deserves credit for her impeccable characterizations. Using precise gestures and vocal choices, she creates dozens of distinct characters that are so meticulously and instantly created that the actress almost disappears behind them. Sometimes she changes characters so quickly it’s a wonder she doesn’t forget which character she’s playing. If anything, there is too much emphasis on the physicality and voice of the characters, to the point where they became clichéd. Parks only give real depth to a few of the characters, so a number of them seem more like caricatures.
But the superficial characterizations are more the fault of playwright Nilaja Sun, whose script traffics in tired archetypes without offering much in the way of new insights. There’s the benign old African-American janitor, who narrates the play, and the tough guy who turns out to have a heart, and the mumbling kid who just needs a bit of encouragement in order to let his voice soar, and the stern principal who, it turns out, deeply cares for the students in her charge.
The play’s title refers to the much-criticized No Child Left Behind act, but the federal legislation is barely mentioned in the script despite the fact that Sun makes a convincing case for the importance of arts education (the students are seen to benefit tremendously from their involvement in a theatrical production), which is being cut in schools across the country as a result of NCLB’s demand for ever-improving results on standardized academic tests. If nothing else, No Child… should inspire some reflection about what kind of educational “results” are truly most important.