Onstage she's any height you like — her performance multiplied by your imagination. Jerome, for instance, her biggest headache and the leading skeptic in this classroom at Malcolm X High in the Bronx, has all the body language of a gangly, loose-limbed near-six-footer.
Offstage, even with her mop of curly dark hair, writer–performer Nilaja Sun surely can't be as tall as most of the kids she brings to vivid, multifaceted life in No Child..., the show that rave reviews and popular demand have boosted from a debut at the Samuel Beckett on Theatre Row to an open run at the Barrow Street Theatre down in the Village.
"I was an actress before I was a teacher," says Sun, who nowadays is both — more exactly a "teaching artist," as the terminology goes, in the New York City public-school system and in her play. This, in fact — as the old black janitor/narrator (also Sun) puts it right at the top of the show's 70 fast-moving minutes — "is a play within a play within a play."
Teaching artist Sun attempts to get these bored, unruly tenth-graders to put on Timberlake Wertenbaker's Our Country's Good, that crisp 1988 drama in which a 1788 shipload of convicts to Australia are led to put on George Farquhar's Restoration comedy The Recruiting Officer. "Ay yo! This is some white shit!" is Jerome's right-off-the-bat scorcher. But it is also Jerome who digs full well that in a school with metal detectors and bars on the windows and security guards and cops in the halls, "We treated like convicts every day." Jerome (and Brian and Shondrika and Xiomara and Coca and Chris and Philip and all the others), as well as Malcolm X High itself, are, of course, amalgams from out of Sun's eight years of experience in the system. Her own school experience — at Our Lady of Sorrows, near where she was born (on Nov. 16, 1974) and raised on the Lower East Side — was very different. "When one of the nuns entered a room, everything stopped."
It was when the Epic Theatre Center was looking for an Antigone for an in-school production in the Bronx that the company's co-founder, Ron Russell, took a shot on Franklin & Marshall graduate Nilaja Sun, and it was a New York State Council on the Arts grant in January 2005 that set Nilaja Sun to work with dramaturg Russell on "a solo show to show the wear and tear on teachers, principals, kids, everybody."
Where do the words and characters come from? "Well, a lot of stuff happens in the mirror. Or in my mind. Or in the shower. Or in the subway. Or in sleep. Or in dreams."
Nilaja means "peacemaker" in Yoruba. This Nilaja — half black American, half Puerto Rican — brings not peace, but drama, and insight, and humanity, and laughter, to the lost land behind those metal detectors and barred windows.