Sun Shines On Hartford Stage’s Pike St.
Nilaja Sun is best known for No Child..., her solo show based on her eight-year experience with arts education in New York City schools, featuring 16 characters, all of which Sun performed.
The play, which was presented at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre in 2010, follows Sun’s story as a visiting teacher in a 10th grade classroom at Malcolm X High School in the Bronx. (The play’s title alludes to President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind Act” though Sun has stated that “the show is not a direct indictment on the governmental program, but rather a spotlight on great teachers.”
No Child... was performed nationally and internationally, and earned Sun an Obie Award.
Her latest work, Pike St. is also a deeply personal work, but this 80-minute, intermission-less solo show that she performs has an entirely different feel to it. The show, which premiered two years ago at off-Broadway’s Epic Theatre Ensemble and also played Berkeley Repertory Theatre, will be presented by Sun at Hartford Stage through Sunday, Feb. 2, directed by Ron Russell, who has staged past productions of the piece.
In Pike St., named after an actual street beneath the Manhattan Bridge, Sun vividly brings to life three generations of a Puerto Rican family and the vibrant inhabitants of on New York’s Lower East Side.
“Like No Child..., Pike St. takes on key societal questions with generosity, humor, and depth,” says Elizabeth Williamson, associate artistic director.
In the show, Evelyn is a single mother who fights for the survival of her family, struggling to hold her life together with both grace and humor. She cares for her immobilized daughter and supports her womanizing father, relying upon money from her brother who is serving abroad in Afghanistan. When he comes home, afflicted with PTSD, Evelyn fights for her family’s healing, redemption, and survival in the face of a threatening storm—both natural and man-made.
“It kind if shows us at our best, worst and craziest,” says Sun in a recent phone interview. “The work was inspired by the days when Hurricane Sandy came to town,” says Sun, who describes herself as “an actor who writes stories—and what a blessing it’s all been.”
The neighborhood, she says, “is one of those low-lying areas of Manhattan, so during the storm and after we had no running water and no electricity, so neighbors really had to help neighbors. It was a kind of crazy but also lovely and quite beautiful and I really wanted to honor all of those neighbors in cities and towns where, when things like that happen, people really lend a hand to one another.”
Sun describes that area of the Lower East Side as “quite diverse. It’s near Chinatown, so we have a great influence of Chinese-Americans, but we also have Eastern Europeans, and Jewish folks who came here through Ellis Island. There’s a wonderful gay culture, too. It has everything, except maybe Australians. There’s a taste of the entire world there.”
So far the area has been spared gentrification, which has transformed some other neighborhood’s rich culture.
“It’s kind of stayed the same. I have the same bagel shop, the same supermarkets and drugstores, We only have one humongous skyscraper—and I have no idea who said ‘Yes’ to that 70-story building. It hasn’t changed as drastically as the rest of Manhattan, so it’s still a gem of a place.”
But when a hurricane hits, she says, nothing else matters, not battles about gentrification, of differences on other issues.
“Human lives need to be saved,” she says.
And the feeling she wants audiences to have?
“There is always hope in everything I write. Yes, there’s comedy, yet at the same time there is a specific reality that these characters are facing.”
Is the hurricane a metaphor?
“There probably is symbolic meaning, but it’s more of a spiritual healing than of water, wind, and storms. What it asks is how do you keep your center when the world is kind of pushing and pulling against you.”
Frank Rizzo is a freelance journalist who lives in New Haven and New York City. He has been writing about theater and the arts in Connecticut for nearly 40 years.