The transformative power of caring steps into the classroom in “No Child ...”
Riverside Theatre’s second virtual presentation of its fall season features a collaboration between the Iowa City troupe and PURE Theatre of Charleston, S.C., where David Lee Nelson was playwright-in-residence. He came to Iowa City to perform his solo show, “Stages,” which became the final production on Riverside’s Gilbert Street stage as the pandemic permanently closed its doors.
Nelson, who had been battling colon cancer, died Sept. 24. This presentation of “No Child ...” is dedicated to his memory, and can be viewed online through 11:59 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 18.
Playwright Nilaja Sun leaves nothing behind in her 2006 laser-focused examination of New York City students in crisis. Alas, it mirrors the very real issues that continue to plague schools across the country 14 years later. Sun’s melting pot of cultures and ethnicities stirs up the same apathy, fears, racism and challenges that still vex educators seeking to leave no child behind.
Her award-winning words emanate from the artistry and soul of Joy Vandervort-Cobb, one of PURE Theatre’s core ensemble members. It’s a wonder to behold the way she instantly and effortlessly slips into an array of students, teachers, a stern school principal and the heartwarming janitor who narrates the 85-minute play.
The videography is a huge help, as well, not only in capturing the action, but in its clever little ways of setting the scenes, as well as the intriguing choice of using black-and-white for the janitor’s insights.
Vandervort-Cobb is a chameleon in channeling the physical and emotional attitudes of the various characters, allowing viewers to always know who is speaking, through their distinct voices, gestures and postures.
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The main character is Ms. Sun, an actor and teaching artist who is spending six weeks in an English classroom at Malcom X Vocational High School in the Bronx. Her task is to use theater to reach the “worst” class in the school, and at the end, present a play.
Naturally, it’s a hard sell among a group of kids so tough that they’ve had five teachers in seven months. They wander in whenever they please, 20 or 30 minutes late to class, eat their breakfast there, swear at everyone and mock each other. So of course, plays are stupid and it’s all a big waste of their time.
Ms. Sun will not tolerate any of this, even when the current English teacher informs her that most likely, no one will read the play, they’ll lose the handout, they’ll cut class, and their parents won’t come to the performance.
And while it seems she’s chosen the worst possible play for these kids, “Our Country’s Good,” about a group of convicts in 18th- century Australia, it turns out to be the best choice for these students who feel like prisoners already — always having someone telling them what to do, forming lines at the subway and at school, and passing through metal detectors as they step inside a crumbling building housing four schools.
Everyone keeps abandoning them, including their teachers, and the world seems to be preparing them for jail. After several weeks of struggle and futility, even Ms. Sun is ready to walk away.
But of course, she doesn’t.
The action unfolds the way you’d expect, and the ending is more than a tad cliche. But the journey is a fascinating lesson in how much work is left to be done to make sure no child is left behind.
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At a glance
What: Joy Vandervort-Cobb in “No Child ...”
Collaboration: Riverside Theatre in Iowa City and PURE Theatre in Charleston, S.C.
When: Online through 11:59 p.m. Sunday (10/18)
Where: Viewing instructions at Riversidetheatre.org/no-child
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Tickets: $15 adults, $10 students, at Riversidetheatre.org/no-child
Run time: 85 minutes; contains adult language
Upcoming: “Grounded,” starring Katy Hahn; online 7:30 p.m. Friday (10/16) to 11:59 p.m. Oct. 25; $15 adults, $10 students; details at Riversidetheatre.org/grounded