Watching Joy Vandervort-Cobb perform No Child at PURE Theatre, one could be forgiven for assuming she wrote the funny and poignant one-woman show herself. The characters all have such clearly defined personalities and voices, and at times almost trip over one another in what herself refers to as “rapid-fire” delivery, it’s hard to believe she can keep them all straight in her head, let alone on the stage. But keep them straight she does, and it’s a testament to both the actress and director Sharon Graci that the opening performance of the show’s brief Piccolo Spoleto run was so natural and seamless.
Written and originally performed by Obie-award winner Nilaja Sun, No Child tells the story of a brief artist-in-schools residency taken by a young actress, working with a challenging group of disadvantaged sophomores at an overcrowded and underfunded Bronx high school that greets them each morning with airport-level security at the door. While most of the action takes place in the classroom, and deals with the push-and-pull between Miss Sun and her young thespians, the audience also gets a peek into the principal’s office and a hint of the financial difficulties faced by the struggling actress. The action is framed with narration by the school’s elderly custodian, who delivers exposition while mopping the floor.
The initially idealistic and energetic Miss Sun begins her first day with grandiose plans to stage Our Country’s Good, Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play about a group of 18th-century convicts staging a play. She finds herself quickly challenged by her students’ colorfully confrontational attitudes and horrified by the circumstances she learns they deal with on a daily basis outside of school. As the action unfolds, her emotions run the gamut from enthusiasm to despair, with the audience going along for the ride.
In Vandervort-Cobb’s hands, all of the characters are sympathetic, and one feels like that must have been a primary goal of playwright Sun; there are no villains, and despite the challenges faced by each of the characters, they’re clearly all doing the best they can. Part of the point is that there’s no way to keep these adolescents’ outside lives from interfering with their education. It’s hard to stay focused on your part in the school play when family members are falling prey to gang violence or your mom needs you to babysit while she works the night shift.
While Miss Sun is the story’s clear protagonist, the students often steal the show. A diverse collection of students — gang members, truants, immigrants, and special-needs students sharing a single classroom — they’ve been disappointed and abandoned so many times, their resistance is understandable. While the language and behaviors they exhibit might be unacceptable, it’s clear that playwright Sun wants to remind us all that we can refuse to accept behavior without also rejecting the person.
The stage is bare and the show’s only props are a desk, a chair, and a book. Janitor Baron pushes an imaginary mop, Miss Sun constantly dons and sheds her imaginary backpack, and the security guard waves an imaginary metal-detection wand as he casually demeans and turns away students at the schoolhouse door. But Vandervort-Cobb’s performance is so strong, props aren’t any more necessary than other actors. She captures the audience’s attention immediately and, alternating characters with a flick of her wrist or a shift in her shoulders, doesn’t let go.