This is not the first time that Joy Vandervort-Cobb has portrayed a dozen different characters. She did that only a few years ago when she dazzled local audiences with her take on Lily Tomlin's The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.
Even so, tackling the one-woman show No Child — which features an inner-city schoolroom's worth of fiercely idiosyncratic adolescents, their shell-shocked visiting teacher, and the school janitor — made her nervous.
Vandervort-Cobb's first experience with No Child came from Sharon Graci, co-founder and artistic director of PURE Theatre, where Vandervort-Cobb is a core ensemble member. Graci was eyeing the play as a potential Piccolo submission. "She sent it to me months ago and was like, 'Read this and tell me what you think. I'm thinking about doing it,'" Vandervort-Cobb says.
The play, written and performed in 2006 by Nilaja Sun, is a fictionalized retelling of Sun's own experience working as a teacher in a New York City school. Sun worked with her students to stage a production of Timberlake Wertenbaker's Our Country's Good, which itself tells the story of an 18th century New South Wales penal colony staging George Farquhar's 1706 play The Recruiting Officer. Although it's an ambitious, conceptually interesting undertaking, it's not exactly an obvious choice for a room full of rebellious millennials.
The play's challenges were only amplified by the fact that Vandervort-Cobb, a College of Charleston professor, was facing the end of the school year and stacks of student essays.
And then there's the juggling act of the play itself.
"I like doing multiple characters," she says. "But they don't generally have this rapid-fire dialogue. I'm used to long monologues, maybe two or three characters talking to one another — easy enough to change the body, change the tone of voice. But I'm in a classroom full of kids, and they all have a voice."
The excitement began to give way to fear. "Maybe we shouldn't do this," Vandervort-Cobb remembers saying to Graci after spending some time with the script. "She was like, 'It's too late. We submitted it.'"
Vandervort-Cobb is also quite aware of how her feelings mirror Sun's when she first enters the classroom of her fellow teacher Ms. Tam. "Miss Sun walks into chaos," she says. "I think she is immediately assailed by how quickly things move and is appalled at Ms. Tam's seeming inability to control what is happening." As Vandervort-Cobb plays Sun, she says, "She recognizes she has to repurpose the room."
In the play, Miss Sun quickly realizes she has to meet her students where they are, which in many cases is a bad place. In addition to the roadblocks shared by thousands of low-income, inner-city kids across the country, the children in this classroom are regarded as the school's worst students. Vandervort-Cobb says, "And when you lay that kind of foundation, the kids can't help but to live up to it until and unless someone comes in, connects, and helps them change their minds by allowing them to demonstrate that there is more to them than the diagnosis of being challenged and failing that challenge.
"I think the kids do feel trapped until they meet and are encouraged, cajoled, and inspired by Miss Sun," she adds. "I'm struck by the sense of hopelessness in that classroom, in that school. They are being pushed through, and they know it."
She empathizes with their defiance and apathy. "These kids are constantly being left behind; they are afraid to connect and commit because it nets them nothing but more loss," she says. "Who wants to walk into that possibility every day?"
When it comes to the students, Vandervort-Cobb says it's impossible not to play favorites, admitting to a particular fondness for the character Jerome. "I might have to kick him out after a week," she says, laughing. "But right now, Jerome's got my heart."
While there is clearly a message to No Child, Vandervort-Cobb says the play isn't preachy. "It's tragic," she says. "But there is humor and growth in that tragedy. And a bit of triumph redefined."