Nilaja Sun wins with ‘No Child’
I haven’t been to the HBO Comedy Fest in several years, mainly because the big ticket items are too late and too crowded, while the late afternoon shows are a crapshoot because I am so unhip I know nothing at all about the performers and hence have no criteria or druthers to go by.Last week my co-workers were gathered around “The Sink” like drones in the hive and inquiry led to the explanation that Comedy Fest had given us some free tickets to the shows and they were taking their pick. Next thing I knew I, too, was pawing through the tickets, propelled by the sheer hype of it, and grabbed two for a Friday show at 5 p.m. at the Wheeler.Good time, good venue, no idea what the show was, tickets said, “Nilaja Sun’s No Child,” which meant zip to me.Meanwhile, my friend Jack had copped two tickets to “The Moth,” whatever THAT was, at 4 p.m. Thursday at Belly Up. “The Moth” turned out to be five performers each telling eight-minute “stories,” on the theme of The Show Must Go On. Some stories were funny, most were poignant as well, and the best was, by coincidence, Nilaja Sun, a small black woman who told about opening a one-woman show while her father, who had abandoned her family early on, sat right in the front row. So now we knew who/what Nilaja Sun was and looked forward to her show “No Child” the next day. Jack said that Joe Lang, one of the head honchos, told him that Nilaja was THE sleeper of the festival.In brief, “No Child” was the autobiographical story of Ms. Sun trying to get a class of inner-city 13-year-olds to put together a play in five weeks. Narrated by the school’s janitor, it covered the trials of the teacher vis-à-vis both the students and administration, taking whacks at everything from security, national testing, inter-racial strife, gangs and, finally, hope. The show was, in turn, hilarious, scathing, emotionally involving and deep.But the thing of it was, Nilaja Sun played ALL of the roles, alone on the stage, nonstop, for an hour and a half, simply dressed in dark pants and a white shirt, turning before our eyes from male to female, old to young, shy to macho, a Jamaican kid arguing with a Puerto Rican – bang, bang, bang, accents right on – and then she’s the old man janitor, pushing a broom across the stage.It was a thoroughly remarkable, totally convincing performance.I’ve seen Whoopie Goldberg and Lily Tomlin change personalities in skits with that kind of dexterity, but never that fast, never without props of some kind (well, the broom) and never without a pause. This lady was absolutely incredible.At the end, the (sadly) half-full house jumped to its feet in a well-deserved ovation.Remember her name: Nilaja Sun. New York already knows it.Su Lum is a longtime local who has been disappointed that the HBO comedy shows never aired on HBO. Now that she has five HBO channels, she hopes to catch them all this year. Her column appears every Wednesday.
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The past sneaks up on us in the strangest of ways, and I don’t mean bounty hunters flashing those “Wanted: Dead or Alive” posters in our faces.