Jen turns a cartwheel on stage

University of Minnesota Duluth student Erica VonBank, right, portrays Professor Jennifer Moore in the UMD production of "One River." (Photo from the Sept. 30 Duluth News Tribune)
University of Minnesota Duluth student Erica VonBank, right, portrays Professor Jennifer Moore in the University of Minnesota Theater Department production of “One River.” (Photo from the Sept. 30 Duluth News Tribune)

Jen skipped into a cartwheel, planted herself on the stage and came up singing.

Actually, she was rapping.

Jen and a small group of other actors were rapping about the St. Louis River, which flows into Lake Superior on the east end of Duluth.

“You just did a cartwheel up there,” I said to Jen.

She nodded her head.

“I’ve never seen you do a cartwheel before,” I said.

“Shhhh…”

Jen later confirmed she had never successfully executed a cartwheel. Never in her life. She never performed a rap either. But then this wasn’t real life. This was the theater and Jen – or “Professor Jennifer Moore” – was a character being played by a college student in a University of Minnesota Duluth play called “One River.”

“One River” was based on a journalism project Jen helped organize with UMD professor John Hatcher and Perfect Duluth Day President and web publisher Paul Lundgren called “One River, Many Stories.” The project was an experiment to see what would happen when area journalists, photographers, bloggers and storytellers of all kinds focus on one thing: The St. Louis River.

One of the storytellers who jumped into the project was Tom Isbell, a University of Minnesota Duluth theater professor. Isbell combed through the One River, Many Stories website and discovered delightful tales of adventure, important local history and a unique, 21st century look into the human impact on one of the most beautiful natural resources in the northland.

Then he wrote a play about it… or as his character in the performance calls it: “An evening of theater.”

To give these St. Louis River stories context, Isbell wrote Jen and her colleagues into the play. So early in the performance we see them – actually their corresponding performers –  sitting around a school lunch table discussing the journalism experiment and its possibilities for the stage.

That’s when the rap starts.

The play is great fun. A strong cast of college students sing, dance and paddle kayaks around the stage. A scene recreates the glacial formation of Lake Superior using bed sheets and a Wisconsin cheesehead. A dramatic copper mining protest song recalls Joan Baez at her 1960s best, and an imaginary chickadee makes a guest appearance.

The play also reveals the profound importance of the St. Louis River – or any river anywhere for that matter.  Hey, the river contributes to the water we drink to stay alive – could there be anything more important? The river is, always has been, and always will be, a central character in our life. The production successfully reminds of this fact.

Jen Moore, left, meets "Professor Jennifer Moore," University of Minnesota Duluth theater student Erica VonBank.
Jen Moore, left, meets “Professor Jennifer Moore,” University of Minnesota Duluth theater student and “One River” actress Erica VonBank.

After the play, Jen and I met the student who portrayed “Professor Moore.” Her name was Erica VonBank, a senior who grew up in Savage, Minnesota, a town along the Minnesota River. VonBank and the 10 other actors did a wonderful job of bringing the One River, Many Stories journalism experiment to life. All of them were multi-talented, confident and professional. But it seemed like there was something more to the performance.

“I really didn’t know what to expect with this. A play about a river?” said VonBank. “But I can’t believe how great it turned out. I mean, I’ve been here for four years and I didn’t know anything about the St. Louis River. It’s such an amazing and beautiful place. I learned SO much.”

And so did the audience.

I hope Jen is proud of her role in the One River, Many Stories project. It clearly went into some unexpected and important places.

Maybe she should be doing cartwheels in her classroom.

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