Joy Vandervort-Cobb starred in the one-woman show “No Child,” presented by Pure Theatre during Piccolo Spoleto Festival. The demanding role requires that Vandervort-Cobb play multiple characters, changing persona, accent, mannerisms and more in the blink of an eye. The play, inspired by writer Nijala Sun’s actual experiences, deals with the shortcomings of a public education system that often fails underpriviledged students. It was one of a few productions in town that confronted social justice issues.
Q: Are there more social justice themed plays than usual at this year’s Piccolo Spoleto Festival?
A: No, I wouldn’t say there are more than normal. We generally have theater that is provocative and pushy in many ways around issues. When we present these issues in theater, it has the power to make people reconsider their views and perspectives. That’s the same thing Nijala Sun did when she wrote and performed “No Child.” The value of theater is partially that we want to entertain you, but as Brian, the kid who always has his hands near his face says in the play, “Theater should teach you something new.” Many times that new idea reveals something about oneself.
Q: What is the value of a social justice themed play in comparison to a film or book?
A: The difference with a book is that you’re having that experience alone. You can consider it at your own pace and on your own time. With a film you can walk away at any time. I guess you can do the same with live theater, but usually people are too polite to do so. There is something about live actors and a live audience, and that communion that happens; it does something different to you than mediums like books or film, which will exist either way. For instance, my sister said she started to cry during one of the shows, and found herself sitting back in her chair so she could quietly wipe her tears “Why hide it?” I asked her. Yes, you’re with other people, but you’re in the dark and that gives you anonymity. And there is probably someone else crying in that theater too.
Q: Even though “No Child,” tackled serious issues, it was still very funny. What is the value of comedy when presenting social justice plays?
A: If the audience laughs then that means they’re relaxing and the message of the play, and my message as an actor, will come through. I teach the same way. I know students will absorb more when I make them laugh and that defensive wall comes down.
With that being said, at first, when reading the play, I didn’t think it was particularly funny. I thought the kids were funny. But, the audience sure thought it was very funny. I knew there were places people would laugh, because all of these characters I play would ring just familiar enough. Of course all of the characters are stereotypes, but using the stereotypes lets you comment on them. In doing so, I hope I created characters that are both unique and universal. I want the audience to leave thinking a little different about a boy like Jerome, someone who is 18 in the 10th grade, but who is still smart as hell. He had nothing going for him in any system, but he still had passion and a real skillset.
Q: How does this method of presenting social issues differ from that employed by “Twilight: Los Angeles 1992” or “The Exonerated?”
A: Anna Deavere Smith, who wrote “Twilight,” is a mimic. In the original Broadway run she played all of the characters. She was extraordinary in giving us all of the different sides of the events leading up to the Rodney King riots. Her play, and her performance, was painful as hell, but also had moments of great humor. You can’t hit audiences with heavy, heavy, heavy all the time. We, as an audience, die when that happens. I watch shows sometimes wishing for a place to smile to break the tension so I can continue to listen.
The beauty of “The Exonerated” is that it’s a magnificent series of stories. ... This is a very timely piece, as is “Twilight,” with what is happening here in America, especially in regards to what is happening with the African American community and the police.
Q: There is a joke in the play about how often “A Raisin in the Sun” is presented, implying that it’s almost like a token black play. How do you feel about the degree of presentation of the larger canon of black theater?
A: The canon of black playwrights and theater is so extensive, but people pull out of this space because it’s less safe. There are so many shows, and so many experiences and voices out there that are buried because it is safer to continually present the same plays over and over. Many black actors and professors feel that way. It’s like, “Are we seriously going to do ‘Raisin in the Sun’ again?” I love “Raisin in the Sun,” and don’t want to disparage something that was a very important piece to us in 1959, but I don’t need to see it ever again.
That’s what I love about being a core ensemble member at Pure. This theater takes risks and presents newer contemporary works. “Let them have it how they want it” is oftentimes how we survive as community theaters, but who else is going to produce these plays if not us? To be honest, the fact that this show is selling so well is really surprising to me, but I am very appreciative. People are digging it and it’s motivating. It’s like, lets bring some more stuff up! Let’s do Cheryl West, and lets do some other pieces people don’t know. Lets take chances with pieces in this canon.
Q: What are your goals in doing social justice plays?
A: I often choose plays that will test and provoke what it means to be Southern, and furthermore what it means to be Southern and black. Once an audience sees a play like that, those conversations get started, and the mystery gets dispelled. If mystery is dispelled, then world can be changed. And in that way, theater can reshape the world.
Ignorance is fear of the unknown. If we can get these conversations started and continue the dialogue then I’ve done something right.
Seamus Kirst is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.