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No Child... - Off-Broadway

This moving and critically lauded piece returns to off-Broadway's Barrow Street Theatre.

Nilaja Sun

Age: 31

Hometown: New York City. "I wound up going to grammar school a block away from where I'm performing right now [the Barrow Street Theatre in Greenwich Village]," says Sun. "St. Joseph's Catholic Grammar School. It's my old stomping ground."

Currently: Single-handedly portraying the charismatic populace of the Bronx's fictional Malcolm X High School in off-Broadway's No Child…, a solo show based on her experiences as a teaching artist in New York's public schools.

The Old Neighborhood: Sun relishes her years growing up on Manhattan's Lower East Side, a nurturing atmosphere she remembers as a "cornucopia" of energies and ethnicities. An only child born to African-American and Puerto Rican parents, Sun was also raised by an Italian stepfather from Brooklyn, giving her "the whole multicultural experience. I feel really lucky to have been raised in that kind of environment," she says, "because it taught me a lot about different types of people."

Quick-Change Artist: During Sun's whirlwind performance, she morphs instantly into an array of troublesome 10th graders, a demure teacher, a no-nonsense principal, a wise custodian—and herself, struggling to get the kids to memorize and perform the play Our Country's Good. Her characters, she says, are amalgamations of real students she's worked with: "None of them are imaginary, coming out of my head. These are all kids that most teachers know." She recalls in particular a girl named Tiny from a Long Island City school. "She was tall and looked like a model, but was so quiet," says Sun. "She had a huge attitude, but it was because she was really shy." When Sun asked the girl why she'd chosen to take a drama class, Tiny confided that she wanted to learn to speak in public. A year of persistent effort paid off in the form of a beautiful monologue. Recently, Sun ran into Tiny on a train, all grown up. "She's now going to be a fashion designer. She's going to F.I.T. She's all Miss Pizzazz." With a smile and a touch of hesitant pride, Sun adds, "I don't know if I had anything to do with that, but…"

Magic in the Making: Sun describes her creative process as slow and instinctual. "For two or three months, everything is gestating in my head. I don't write anything down. And I dream about it." Mirror work factors prominently into her method, as she visualizes where each character lives physically. "Then I can start to rant, rant, rant. And then I write it down very quickly," she explains. She draws from the universalities of being a city kid, noting, "I've listened to the kids long enough to understand where a lot of their issues lie, where a lot of their humor comes from." And yet there are major differences between her own upbringing and that of today's students. "I wasn't raised in a time when young women thought of themselves as bitches," she observes wryly.

Come On Down! Though No Child… offers a less than glorified view of New York's public education system, administrators seem eager to bring Sun into their schools to perform. But she has a better idea: "I think it is important for our kids, especially those in the inner city, to come out of their neighborhoods and down to the Village and see theater." She notes that if a performance is part of the school day, it becomes an obligation and doesn't expand the students' worldview. "You get a totally different experience in a theater," she says, "and that's what we need to be giving our kids." During the school year, when Sun teaches by day and performs by night, she encourages her class to come out and see her work. "They get a chance to see someone who probably looks like them, up on a stage, in a commercial run, and they're like 'OK, possibilities are out there…'"

Keeping the Faith: After her interview, Sun was heading out to see a woman named Ammachi who goes by the intriguing title "The Hugging Guru." In addition to running a philanthropic foundation dedicated to helping India's poor, Ammachi "goes all over the world and just hugs people," says Sun. Expressions of caring and spirituality obviously appeal to this multitalented performer, who has shared her gifts with hundreds of students over the years. "I think it's really important to find some part of you that has faith," she says. "I'm at a real high point right now, and I've been in really low points. It's so important to believe in something to stay centered, balanced and sane."

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