Art mirrors life in 'No Child...'

Actress Reenah L. Golden uses her experience as a teaching artist to help her perform 16 roles in "No Child..." -- Syracuse Stage's 38th season opener.

If there’s one thing you can say about actress Reenah L. Golden, it’s that she doesn’t take things for granted. Take the moment she was offered the main role for a Rochester production of the one-woman play, No Child… by Nilaja Sun. 

The play is about a teaching artist in the Bronx who tries to engage a group of underachieving tenth graders by forcing them to put on a play. Golden, who is a teaching artist in real life, was initially hesitant about the offer.

“I didn’t have any confidence in thinking that this was the role for me, or that I was meant for this,” she said. “It was more like the universe was trying to tell me something. I was asked to do this at this point in my life. I should consider rising to the challenge.”

No Child... first opened off-Broadway in 2006 and won an Obie Award. The production of No Child… in Rochester, the one Golden starred in, was first staged last fall. The play is now the opener for Syracuse Stage’s 38th season today with Timothy Bond, the Stage's artistic director, directing the production.

Golden was called back to star in this one-woman show. Under Bond’s direction, she had to start over, rethinking the movements and characters that had become so engrained in her head. But so far, she’s keeping an open mind. 

“Once again, the universe was telling me, ‘Don’t get too comfortable just because you did this play in Rochester. Maybe there’s something more for you to learn about this play, about this issue and about this craft,’” she said.

The play calls for one actress to play 16 roles, from teenager to octogenarian, with ethnicities ranging from Russian to Jamaican. And there are no costume changes. Golden can only use her voice and a select number of props. To help her tackle each role, Golden studied each character in depth.

No Child… can technically be considered Golden’s first play because this is the first time she has considered herself an actress. Previously, she had been using theater to engage her students.

“In other forms of acting that I’ve done in community theater and educational theater, I just never put that actress label on it,” Golden said. “Because as a teaching artist, I just happen to be using this medium right now to get to the outcome that we said that we were going to give to the client.”

Golden co-founded Kuumba Consultants, an arts-in-education agency based in Rochester that brings arts and cultural education to schools that lack such programs. She is also a founder of Slam High, a spoken word poetry program for young people. Slam had been featured in the HBO documentary series, Brave New Voices.

Through having students write poetry, plays, and stories and perform onstage, Golden has seen “that light and that excitement just come back."

“There is nothing like the arts in turning on the light for these kids, that brings out their own need for self-expression and their own drive to want to actually create something or accomplish something,” she said.

And No Child… reflects the change that can occur when art and education are combined to further self-expression.

There’s a story that Golden likes to tell, about the opening night of No Child… in Rochester back in 2009. Waiting for the curtain to rise, the fear and the nervousness came. She was having a dialogue with herself, questioning her knowledge of the source material and her grasp of all the different characters.

“I was just a wreck. I didn’t know if I really knew it,” she said. “And as I was having this dialogue in my head, the first character in the play was already walking out onto the stage. I watched it happen and realized, ‘Reenah doesn’t need to know what’s going on, these characters know what they’re supposed to be doing.’”

And every performance after that, she has that conversation with herself.

Go see the show

No Child… will run at Syracuse Stage from Sept. 25 to Oct. 10 at the Storch Theatre. Adults: $20, Students: $15. A post-show discussion will follow every performance.

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