by Frances Edstrom, columnist
“No Child,” a one-person, one-act play by Nilaja Sun, is playing at the Great River Shakespeare Festival. It features the amazing acting talent of Melissa Maxwell, directed by Tarah Flanagan.
This is definitely an “actor’s play.” The actor is called on to play a panoply of characters, which Maxwell, as Sun, does skillfully.
The story is of the worst, chaotic, minority-filled inner-city high school in New York, where Sun is the new teaching artist, and has the task of putting on a student play with kids who have probably never read a play before, let alone rehearsed and acted in it. Let alone come to school regularly and paid attention.
Maxwell plays the teaching artist, the friendly janitor, the commanding principal, the timid, stressed classroom teacher, a couple other teachers, and all the kids. Each character is readily recognizable, and beautifully played.
This is a small play, and it has a message, which is, according to my impression, all children have worth, and it is incumbent upon us to nurture that worth, believe in them, and teach them.
I imagine when it was written 10 years ago it was an eye-opener for audiences. But in those 10 years, the afflictions of inner-city schools — full of drugs, violence, foul language, and aggressive behavior — have become routine in many schools in suburban and rural areas, even in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Talk to a Winona teacher heart-to-heart some day.
The message will come across to some as unattainable. These kids come from stressed households where they get little encouragement, if they have parents who are paying attention to them at all. By the time they get to high school, they have no foundation upon which to build, and are used to being failures.
Teachers themselves are not usually taught to teach in those conditions.
Sun almost gives up, but it wouldn’t be much of a play if she did.
The real reason to go to this play is not to hear the well-worn message, but rather to experience the acting talent of Maxwell. It is something you don’t see every day.
The play runs a little over an hour, and is not for children because of language issues (although they hear it at school). The production plays in repertory through July 28.
Tickets may be ordered online at grsf.org, at 507-474-7900, or at the box office at the Winona Visitors Center on Huff Street on the lake.