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Matrix Season Opener: No Child’s Play

By |2013-09-26T09:00:00-04:00September 26th, 2013|Entertainment, Theater|

By John Quinn

“You had to be there” arises to confirm that a situation beyond description actually exists. It is a condemnation of society that such a phrase is the last resort of the men and women in the trenches, teachers in the dysfunctional urban school districts. Playwright Nilaja Sun has “been there,” and her experiences form the backbone of a (mostly) one-woman play. Matrix Theatre Company’s production of “No Child …” celebrates 23 years of socially conscience theater in Southwest Detroit.
The production is not only a primal cry for attention from a society too willing to adopt facile “solutions” to complex problems, it represents stunning achievement in the actor’s art. While the observant eye and ear of director Courtney Jo-Dempsey Burkett is ultimately responsible for this success, her artists, Sunkari Clifford Sykes and the mesmerizing Morgan Breon, are the meat and potatoes of this production.
“No Child …” draws its realism from Sun’s experiences during eight years of leading theater workshops – as a “teaching artiste” – in some of the most destitute schools of the New York City system. The old aphorism “write what you know” is working here, but how she wrote is extraordinary. Janitor Baron is Prologue and Narrator. All 15 other characters -principal, teachers, parents, security guards and students – are portrayed by only one actor. Generally, this would mean serial monologues, with generous use of costume and hair pieces to delineate the different characters. That is not the case in “No Child …”; a single performer creates entire scenes, full of multiple characters.
In the context of the play, Sun – as is so often among professional actors – is between engagements and, to supplement her income, accepts a six-week residency with a sophomore class at Malcolm X Vocational High School in the Bronx. Her objective is to have her students read, discuss and give a performance of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s 1988 drama, “Our Country’s Good,” in which a British officer directs a group of convicts sent to Australia’s penal colony in a production of George Farquhar’s 1706 comedy “The Recruiting Officer.” To her alienated, foul-mouthed charges – and even to some well-spoken theater critics – the proposition seems preposterous; yet there is method in her madness. Performing arts force self-discipline, structure, the necessity to work collectively toward a common goal on the self-centered. Even the theme of “Our Country’s Good” resonates with the class. They identify with society’s outcasts, imprisoned in colonies marked by decaying schools and generational poverty. But Sun faces an up-hill battle against the status quo.
Morgan Breon creates whole scenes of dialogue alone, moving from character to character using an utter mastery of voice and body to slip seamlessly from one to the next. Her work is a tour de force. In the cacophony dialect and intonation there is only one minor flaw; it takes a while to realize there are, in fact, two Asian characters, one teacher and one student, in the classroom scenes. But even a theater critic catches on quickly.
Paired with the young and enthusiastic young Sun is the older, wiser Mr. Baron, a sage who has seen it all. In many ways, the character functions like a Greek chorus, not only reflecting on the plot but challenging the audience to learn from it. Sunkari Clifford Sykes creates a warm, humorous, witty janitor as comfortable in his way as a well-worn sweater.
Adam Crinson’s stark scenic design is marked by subtle but telling detail. There is broken trim on the chalk board. The clock on the drab, water-stained walls is so filthy one can barely make out the numerals. No matter; it’s stopped at 8:04. But the floor best stands as a metaphor of a crumbling school system – a dirty, paint-daubed checkerboard in black and white, broken and cracked at the edges. Neil Koivu’s lighting is tight, omnipresent yet completely unobtrusive.
Although “No Child …” is an optimistic play, it ain’t “To Sir with Love.” Although championing the idea that the lost children need, first and foremost, someone to care about them, playwright Sun is experienced enough to know there are no answers in the back of the textbook. Not every life can be transformed – but that is no reason not to try. The solutions are still out there for those determined to find them.
There is a change at Matrix Theatre this season, as the company welcomes Megan Buckley-Ball as artistic director. It would seem that there is no change in its mission of producing some of the most relevant and thought-provoking theater available to local audiences.

‘No Child …’
Matrix Theatre Company, 2730 Bagley, Detroit. 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday & 3 p.m. Sunday through Oct. 13. 80 minutes; no intermission. $15-20. 313-967-0599.

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Between The Lines has been publishing LGBTQ-related content in Southeast Michigan since the early '90s. This year marks the publication's 27th anniversary.
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