Play shines light on dim world

The teen characters of "No Child " feel less like students and more like prisoners - prisoners of a system that seems to be leaving them behind.

“Shoot, don’t nobody expect us to do nothing but drop out, go to jail, get pregnant or work for the MTA,” says one of the student characters in the play.

“No Child ” began as a one-woman show by Nilaja Sun and has since been performed all over the country as a production with a full cast. It follows a class of sophomores in the Bronx who are challenged by a visiting artist to put on a play.

Sun worked as a visiting artist in New York City schools and based her play on those experiences.

“I wanted to shine a light on what’s it like in the public schools nowadays, especially for those who have never walked into a public school before,” Sun said in a 2010 interview on

The play, which has won numerous awards and has traveled to the Edinburgh Theater Festival in Scotland, is in its opening weekend at South Puget Sound Community College’s Minnaert Center for the Arts.

Don Welch, a theater professor at the college and the play’s director, hopes it will inspire change.

“The one thing that I wanted to do this season was to touch on plays that are these students’ generation of plays,” he said. “I always tell them, ‘Edward Albee would say that theater is nothing more than an expression of real life,’ and if you don’t like what you see in the mirror, then it’s time for your generation to change things.”

Jeanine Kuehn, the second-year student playing school principal Mrs. Kennedy, hopes people will see what needs to be done.

“There is an overhaul that needs to be done with our school system to make it so that more kids can succeed and more kids can have a well-rounded background,” she sad.

The fictional Malcolm X High School is not exactly like those in South Sound. For starters, there are metal detectors at the doors.

“The first thing Ms. Sun does is ask the students, ‘Now, who here has ever seen a play?’ The one person who says yes actually just saw some moviegoers acting out scenes from ‘Star Wars’ while the film was on the screen,” Anita Gates wrote in a 2010 New York Times review of the one-woman show.

But there are similarities between Malcolm X and local schools, said Kuehn, who grew up in Olympia and attended North Thurston High School.

“All schools get cutbacks,” she said. “All schools have problems with behavioral issues with students. I feel like our country doesn’t invest enough in its future, which is its schools and its students, and the play really addresses that. We’re failing these kids.”

She said she didn’t learn about diversity issues or about theater until she got to college. “I feel like now I can be a citizen really,” she said. “I’m learning about my fellow man, not just reading, writing and arithmetic.”

In some ways, Malcolm X is like any school you might find in the real world – or on a situation comedy. When Ms. Sun tells the students that they are thespians, they react as though she’d said “lesbians.”

And the play is not a rant on the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. In addition to numerous awards, it has won critical acclaim for how funny and moving it is.

“Like Lily Tomlin and Whoopi Goldberg in their early work, Sun brings us not her world but the world,” one critic wrote in The New Yorker, while a Boston Globe writer summed her up as “intelligent, clear-eyed and sometimes painfully funny.”

“It’s not just preaching at you,” Kuehn said. “There are levels to it. Some people might just come for the jokes and accidentally learn something.”

The play is part of a season of theater that reflects contemporary realities, Welch said.

Coming up: “Dog Sees God” (May), in which Charlie Brown and friends try to cope with adolescence; “Hole in the Sky” (September), about the events of Sept. 11, 2001; and “Speech and Debate” (November), about teens who find the truth behind the sex scandal swirling around one of their teachers.

No Child

What: This reality-based off-Broadway play, presented by the South Puget Sound Community College theater department, follows the efforts of a visiting artist to produce a play with a group of high school students in the Bronx.

When: 8 p.m. today and Saturday and March 10-12; 2 p.m. Sunday and March 13

Where: Minnaert Center for the Arts at SPSCC, 2011 Mottman Road S.W., Olympia

Tickets: $12.50 for adults; $7.50 for students, staff and faculty; for the March 10 show, pay what you can.

More information: 360-753-8586, www.washington

Also: The play includes strong language.