Lela Elam's Elan
Too much has been said about Lela Elam for this statement to make much of an impact, but here it goes: Lela Elam is a great actress. And though her current play, No Child..., probably has a profound message to share — something about hopes and dreams and the innate potential of children languishing in our inner-city public schools — Elam was what I thought about as I walked from the theater to my car, and Elam was what my date and I discussed on our ride home.
There are two reasons for this. One: Elam is an overwhelming talent, and No Child... is a one-woman showpiece designed for such overwhelming talents, because its lone actress must inhabit no fewer than 16 different characters. Two: If it weren't such a showpiece, No Child... would be a pretty awful play.
The story is this: A woman is hired to teach theater to a bunch of tenth-graders in the Bronx. They jeer at her. They test her. But she challenges them and, against long, long odds, wins them over.
Ugh. Ugh, ugh, ugh. To say that No Child... bears an unfortunate resemblance to certain older plays and movies would be an understatement. In fact, if you've seen Blackboard Jungle/To Sir, with Love/Class of 1984/The Principal/Stand and Deliver/Lean on Me/Class of 1999/Sister Act II/Dangerous Minds/The Substitute/Freedom Writers/The Class, you've seen this. I'd rank No Child... right between Dangerous Minds and Stand and Deliver, though it's funnier than either and a lot less unsettling. But really — how could one of these tales be unsettling at this date in the subgenre's history?
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Happily for No Child..., plenty of teens will see this play, which is probably director Joe Adler's whole MO in producing the thing. (As well as Nilaja Sun's MO in writing it — she is an old hand in the public schools herself, and No Child... is half-reportage.) Earlier this year, Adler's GableStage mounted a production of Macbeth for South Florida's schoolchildren — out of pocket, by the way, since state funding has dried up — and this show, too, will go on the road through SoFla's public high schools. Teenagers usually don't know a cliché when they see one and thus will likely find No Child... touching. And for those little miscreants who might otherwise be bored by or at least affect boredom at live theater, Elam's performance ought to be a very effective attention-grabber.
Did I mention Lela Elam? Because apart from a smart, spare set by Tim Connelly — a grimy, archetypal public schoolroom, half hall and half classroom, stretched improbably skyward in a way that suggests Gothic horror as much as social studies — she is the whole damn show. And what a show. The athleticism of her performance reminded me of Beyoncé's punishing dance routine in "Single Ladies": interesting at first, then novel, then downright fun, and then — as it picks up speed and continues to gather momentum long past the point where a sane person would have slowed down or bowed out or at least demanded a glass of water — a little scary. The question isn't "How does this story end?" It's "Can she keep this up?" She can, and does. The opening-night audience spent most of the second half of the show applauding Elam's élan. Not in big bursts or sustained swells — it was more drawn out than that. Just a periodic clap-clap-clap from any one of the two dozen or so people for whom her performance was steadily morphing from a virtuoso exercise into something like a religious experience.
Here's how it goes: The longest span Elam incarnates any one character is five minutes, in the very first scene. She plays the hunched, raspy-voiced janitor of Malcolm X High, who has been mopping the school's floors and scrubbing its walls since long before anybody heard of Malcolm X. The school day is about to start. When it does, Elam begins to toggle between two teachers: Ms. Tan, an Asian woman of uncertain derivation, and Ms. Sun, the new drama teacher. This is impressive. Then the students enter, and Elam suddenly alternates between the two teachers and a whole classroom of students: a nerdy guy, a couple of male toughs, a bunch of sassy girls. There are Hispanics and African-Americans of both genders, and the actress delineates each character in a kind of dramatic shorthand. Lacking the time to subtly alert us to her quick changes, she differentiates her roles with immediately identifiable accents, postures, and vocal ranges — 16 of them. Sometimes when a teacher says something notable, the entire classroom erupts in protest or disbelief, and Elam incarnates every aspect of the reaction. She does ten characters in ten seconds. She sweats visibly, but you'll never catch her pausing for breath.
This continues for 80 minutes, after which the audience sags in sympathetic exhaustion. Elam isn't a large gal, but it wouldn't be surprising if she becomes downright svelte by the end of the play's run. To inject new life into a story as old and moribund as this one takes a lot out of a person. Elam is more than willing to give.
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