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"No Child ... " Tells Story of Children, Not NCLB

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Nilaja Sun's one-woman show "No Child ... " is not about the No Child Left Behind Act. But the law's cameo near the conclusion draws derisive cheers.

At the end of the show, the main character—named for the actress—informs the audience what happens to the show's main characters. Among them, a boy is killed the next week in gang violence, a girl becomes mayor of New York, and the main character marries Denzel Washington and moves to the nation's capital to rewrite NCLB. The line drew cheers when I saw the show in Washington on Feb. 2. In an interview this week, the playwright told me that's a common reaction. She said she believes the loudest cheers come from teachers.

"They have a great hope for something new and different," said Sun, 33, who wrote the show based on her experiences as a teaching artist in New York City public schools. "They really do want to see a change."

So what would an actress/playwright who has spent seven years helping some of the nation's neediest students produce plays do to rewrite NCLB? "I would definitely come back to a place where teachers can teach the subjects," she said. "Teachers are really pressured to teach to these tests."

But she acknowledges that she's no policy wonk. "I don't know how to turn around a school that's deteriorating, aside from finding 50 of the best teachers ever and making it a charter school," she said. "That nitty-gritty stuff is something I'll leave for the real policymakers in Washington, D.C."

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If the show isn't about NCLB, then why is it called "No Child ...," I asked Sun (pictured at right)."It is kind of like the elephant in the room in schools," she said. "There's this visible yet invisible pressure in the classroom."

She wanted a title that referred to that "elephant" because it's shaping what educators do in their classrooms. But she knew she couldn't write a show that was "an indictment of the law," she said. "Who the hell would want to see that for an hour?"

Instead, the show focuses on the emotional roller coaster she faced every time she entered one of New York City's toughest schools and cajoled seemingly disinterested students into producing a play.

Sun is performing her show at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in downtown Washington until Feb. 17. She'll take it to Los Angeles in March and Berkeley, Calif., in May. After that, she will move on to other acting gigs and hopes to see other actors perform it.

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