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The voice of ‘No Child…’

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Posted: Thursday, September 27, 2012 12:08 am

“I don’t see why we can’t have STEAM instead of just STEM,” said Patrese D. McClain, star of the one-woman show No Child … currently underway at The Black Rep. “You get more out of steam than you do from a STEM.”

As she cleverly suggested incorporating the arts into the new education initiative that emphasizes STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) she had spent the previous 90 minutes illustrating the “case in point” of her argument as the vessel for Nilaja Sun’s No Child… The play is a stage adaptation of Sun’s real-life experiences as a teaching artist in the New York Public Schools.

In a question and answer session following the performance, an intimate – yet abundantly engaged – audience flooded the dialogue with questions for the actress.  She responded to inquiries that ranged from her technique and challenges for embodying the characters she was charged with bringing to life to her own personal opinions with regards to the current public education crisis.

The exchange was the perfect example of the power of being invested enough within an experience to ask the proper questions – which have the potential to ultimately lead to tangible solutions …. and one that augmented the impact of the production.

McClain handled the manic pace of No Child… with grace and precision with the help of director Joe Hanrahan. The challenge included establishing unique and captivating identities for at least a dozen characters – including an elderly janitor, three separate teachers, a principal, a grandmother, security guard and an entire classroom full of inner-city students that reflect the ethnic diversity of the average New York City public high school.

The unifying force with respect to the characters of No Child… lies within Ms. Sun, a teaching artist who assumes responsibility for inspiring the most unruly group of Malcolm X High School students to present a full-fledged theatrical production in six short weeks.

With the musical backdrop of current hip-hop club bangers like Tyga’s “Rack City” and Drake’s “YOLO (You Only Live Once),” the audience is introduced to a vulgar group of disengaged youth passing through one of public education’s epidemic of “failure factories.” But Ms. Sun challenges them to rise to her expectations.

Meanwhile, the elderly janitor has witnessed the transformation of the school from community anchor to battleground for youth anarchy – thanks in part to a system that sets them up to emotionally detach from the education experience from the time they walk in the front door.

The frustration of searches and metal detector do-overs only to enter a building where education has become an afterthought to compliance for the sake of least resistance has become the norm.

But the arrival of Ms. Sun means a light towards the humanity that lies within the organic connection when arts and education are used as a collective.

From time to time the characters of No Child… are exaggerated beyond the point of effectiveness – especially Asian teacher Ms. Tam, and one of the students whose squatted stance and homeboy overtures seem out of sync with the rest of the characters.

But overall, McClain manages to offer an impressive array of uniquely identifiable approaches to each of the characters. Her no-nonsense, yet professional and endearing portrayal of teaching artist Ms. Sun is by far the most authentic – probably because of McClain’s own experience as a teaching artist and arts in education advocate with her own non-profit organization in her native Chicago.

The play itself is somewhat formulaic and predictable, with the characteristics of the standard “teacher makes a difference in the hood” feel good inspirational movies/television/afterschool specials.

But No Child… whispers of something much more. As the characters fight through life experiences while being inspired to learn there is an unyielding authenticity McClain brings to life.

Through McClain, the audience connects with the struggles of being passionate about motivating a generation of young people to truly learn and apply knowledge at a time in the education system where standardized testing is the bottom line. And in No Child… one sees the payoff of muddling through the bureaucratic tape and barriers and use art to tear down the walls of young people hardened by an depersonalized learning process –  and the promise that lies in connecting the heart and mind of youth that the system has tossed by the wayside.

The Black Rep’s presentation of No Child… is currently running through September 30 at Washington University’s Edison Theatre (6445 Forsyth). For more information on show times and ticket prices, call (314) 534-3810 or metrotix at (314) 534-1111. For more information on the upcoming season and special events, visit www.theblackrep.org.

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