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Joy Vandervort-Cobb animates a whole ensemble of characters in Riverside Theatre and PURE Theatre’s ‘No Child …’

Riverside Theatre and PURE Theatre Present: No Child ...

through Oct. 18 -- riversidetheatre.com, $10-15

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Joy Vandervort-Cobb in Riverside Theatre and PURE Theatre’s production of ‘No Child …’ — video still, courtesy of Riverside Theatre

Over the past seven months, theater companies in eastern Iowa and elsewhere have reinvented themselves, branching out from traditional spaces onto streaming platforms to keep performance and themselves alive. Starting Thursday, Riverside Theatre — in conjunction with PURE Theatre in Charleston, South Carolina — offered another to their audiences: a recorded play that audiences can pay to stream at will, available through Oct. 18 (tickets $10-15, with educator discounts).

The play, No Child …, by Nilaja Sun, is set in the fictional Malcolm X High School in the Bronx, in the 1990s. The backdrop is a cheesy bulletin board with class rules, grammatical terms and an inspirational saying. However, the performance is anything but cheesy. Joy Vandervort-Cobb is the absolute star of this one-woman show, directed by Sharon Graci.

The show opens with Vandervort-Cobb as the narrator, a school custodian named Baron who serves as the de facto historian, since he has been there since 1958. Once the scene is set, the audience learns that a teaching artist has been hired to produce a play with a group of 10th graders considered “the worst class in the school.” At this point, Vandervort-Cobb picks up the pace.

Joy Vandervort-Cobb in Riverside Theatre and PURE Theatre’s production of ‘No Child …’ — video still, courtesy of Riverside Theatre

She becomes Ms. Sun, the visiting artist; Miss Tam, the English teacher; Mrs. Kennedy, the principal. And she becomes all of the students. One could easily imagine such an undertaking would be like a reading with only one voice in the room. Nothing could be farther from the truth — at one point during a classroom scene, I looked away from the screen and realized that Vandervort-Cobb had created a wide range of voices. So different were these voices that when I closed my eyes, I easily believed it was an ensemble of actors rather than one woman delivering the rapid-fire conversation common in high school classrooms.

Ms. Sun is determined to read, analyze and stage a play with this tough class. The storyline consists of a series of struggles and challenges. The class as a whole live in the poorest Congressional district in the country. The school can’t retain teachers. Individual students are involved in gangs, facing pregnancy and seen by society as future criminals.

The play Ms. Sun has chosen for the class to perform is set in Australia, about convicts and their role in founding that nation. The Australian convicts are putting on a play about their worth. While she first regrets her choice, it becomes clear that this is material the students can understand: being pigeonholed before they ever get a chance to prove themselves.

Vandervort-Cobb takes the audience through the weeks leading up to the play. Again: This is one woman enacting and voicing every single part of a play within a play within a play. The artistry with which this is done is remarkable. Every voice and every scene is clear and engaging. Every character is recognizable and real thanks to Vandervort-Cobb.

Joy Vandervort-Cobb in Riverside Theatre and PURE Theatre’s production of ‘No Child …’ — video still, courtesy of Riverside Theatre

The direction and production are well done, too (production design by Richard Heffner). Narration sequences are shot in black and white, while the classroom scenes are in color. That cheesy bulletin board has hidden flip-open features that serve as scene cards so the audience knows where each scene is taking place.

If the ending is predictable, the performance was anything but. The message that the successes of schools come as a result of the teachers and students — not from testing and legislation — rings true especially today as schools face a myriad of challenges. No Child … offers an outstanding performance, as well as a meditation on what really matters.


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