By AARON KRAUSE
All Denitra Morgan wants is for her daughter, Noelle, to remain at the high school that she feels will provide the best possible education. But to the Black, working class, single mother, her goal must seem as far-fetched as school integration before the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs Board of Education decision.
To be sure, Denitra is the heroine in Nikkole Salter’s riveting, thought-provoking, relatable drama, Lines in the Dust. West Orange, N.J.’s Luna Stage commissioned the piece in 2014. And the play takes place in 2009 and 2010. That is more than a half-century after the U.S. Supreme Court integrated U.S. public schools. However, in penning Lines in the Dust, Salter questions how equal public education really is, so many years following integration.
Opportunity, finances, race, class, residency, education, and more merge to form a combustible combination in Salter’s explosive play. It’s the most gripping piece of theater that I’ve seen since John Patrick Shanley’s 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play, Doubt: A Parable.
Now, through Aug. 8, Lines in the Dust is receiving a first-rate virtual production by New Normal Rep. It is a professional, nonprofit company founded during the pandemic. And the company presents virtual-only productions not only because of the pandemic, but to provide “affordable, diverse, high-quality theater to a literally limitless audience.” Those are executive producer Sally Klingenstein-Martel’s words. The company’s first couple productions were rousing successes. Chalk up yet another hit for New Normal Rep.
Audiences watching New Normal Rep’s production can expect gripping theater partly because Denitra, facing strong obstacles, desires something so strongly, you sense she’ll fight to her death to receive it. The three-person cast, under Awoye Timpo’s fluid, well-paced direction, delivers performances as credible as they are intense without seeming forced. In fact, the performances amount to some of the strongest acting you will witness.
Salter, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated and Obie Award-winning playwright, offers no easy answers in her play as to how to fix public education. Also, you cannot lump the well-drawn characters into “black and white” categories such as “good” and “bad.” Instead, audiences will find moral ambiguity and shades of grey throughout Salter’s one-hour, 50-minute play.
The piece takes place mostly in Millburn, N.J. (less than 30 miles from Times Square) from 2009 to 2010. Before the action begins, Noelle, Denitra’s daughter (a character who never appears in the play) lost the lottery for a seat at a charter school.
Unfortunately for her, Denitra does not make enough money at her job to afford a private education for her child. And so, her next option would be to enroll her in a public school in Newark, N.J., where she lives (less than 15 miles from Millburn). However, Denitra doesn’t want her daughter to attend a poor, inner-city school. Denitra didn’t have a good experience as a student at the Newark school. Understandably, she wants something better for Noelle.
Denitra knows the law stipulates that children receiving public education must attend school in the district where they live. But in an act of desperation, Denitra lies about where she lives, claiming she resides in Millburn. That amounts to school residency fraud. Naturally, Denitra tries to win over the Millburn school’s Black principal, Dr. Beverly Long. But in doing so, she makes the principal an accessory to the crime.
Furthermore, Denitra and Dr. Long will have a hard time avoiding private investigator Mike DiMaggio’s radar. He’s been a police officer for too long for someone to easily dupe him. If DiMaggio nabs Denitra for school residency fraud, the possible penalties are expulsion and restitution.
The play’s title comes from a quote by former Alabama Gov. George Wallace, in a speech he made during his inauguration in January 1963.
“In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny…and I say…segregation today….segregation tomorrow…segregation forever.”
Of course, the “line in the dust” to which the governor referred is an imaginary one meant to keep the races apart. But more than a half century later, playwright Salter, in Lines in the Dust, wrote about what she perhaps perceived as different “lines” keeping public education from being equal. For instance, they divide families who can afford to live in affluent neighborhoods from those who remain stuck in poor neighborhoods.
For the most part, Salter avoids stuffing Lines in the Dust with unexplained educational jargon. And the suspense and humanity suffusing her play offsets whatever dry facts she includes in the piece.
Salter has written a tight, focused piece; you won’t find unnecessary, information in the play. In addition, the piece contains memorable quotes.
For example, Denitra comments the following about the administrator’s opportunity for education during her youth: “Opportunity isn’t just about merit. It’s about positioning. You weren’t better than the thousands that didn’t get picked. You weren’t more capable. Someone let you in. That’s it. You can have all the talent in the world, but if no one lets you in…I bet you were one of those special Negros they plucked from the hood concrete to refine. I bet you were a part of some pet integration program where they bused you out to some white suburban bliss.”
In her play, Salter doesn’t preach at us. Nor does she judge her characters. Instead, she let’s us think about them and the many issues the play raises. Undoubtedly, after audiences see Lines in the Dust, they’ll have plenty to digest.
Salter deftly builds tension. During the opening scene, Long and Denitra are charming, affable, and laid back. But the characters’ exchanges become increasingly heated as the play progresses. During the most intense exchanges, it’s nearly impossible to look away from the screen.
In addition to the writing, acting, and directing, credit Alphonso Horne’s original music for matching the tones of scenes. For instance, during the beginning, the music is soft and laid back. But the music grows increasingly suspenseful and carries a sense of urgency to match the urgency in later scenes. And when
Denitra finds herself in increasing trouble, the music becomes discordant and jarring.
Speaking of unpleasantness, the play’s ending is hardly neat, tidy, and satisfying. Rather, it leaves us uncertain, and that’s a good thing. Indeed, Salter is writing about complex issues that society cannot easily fix.
The performers transition seamlessly from credibly acting easy-going and charming to convincingly conveying intense emotions.
As Denitra, Melissa Joyner’s wide, wary eyes, and hesitant gestures lead you to believe that she’s trying to hide something. And when Denitra becomes overwhelmed, Joyner closes her eyes tightly and keeps them shut, obviously trying to keep calm. But in at least one scene, she shouts thunderously in a pain-filled voice, without the shout sounding forced. Perhaps Joyner is at her strongest when Denitra starts to figure out that she can do nothing to keep her daughter at Millburn High. During the scene, the mother laughs. It is as though she has used up all her tears, and her voice is too weak to shout any more. And so she laughs, but it’s hardly pleasant laughter, combining disbelief and exasperation.
Meanwhile, Lisa Rosetta Strum imbues Dr. Long with grace, and a caring demeanor. But when the principal becomes frustrated, Strum conveys noticeable tension. Strum, Joyner and Jeffrey Bean, as the private investigator, use pauses to good effect.
Bean lends DiMaggio an easygoing charm in the beginning. But as the play progresses, the actor, through his sharp voice and intense eyes, makes us keenly feel the character’s pride, suspicion, and conviction.
The performers appear to us on screen in rectangular shapes. The crew, including virtual technical director Adriana Gaviria, ensures variety by mixing things up. Sometimes two actors appear on screen at the same time. But we don’t just see two faces in two screens all the time. Instead, the camera shifts to highlight only one performer.
The actors appear on screen well-lit, against appropriately-chosen backdrops, and in Qween Jean’s costumes, which help define character.
Lines in the Dust is not without flaws. For instance, why does DiMaggio interview for the private investigator job with the high school principal? Isn’t it up to the district superintendent to make hiring decisions? The timing of DiMaggio’s hiring is also unclear. It seems like he’s interviewing for the job at a school board meeting late in the play. So, up until then, he was working for the district as a P.I. without the district hiring him? Also, it’s a stretch to believe that district officials would let Dr. Long keep her job, given that she knowingly was an accessory to Denitra’s crime.
In the final analysis, a major reason why Lines in the Dust is a relatable play is Denitra’s desire for something better for Noelle. A parent’s desire to provide a better life for his/her child is universal. And so, you feel for Denitra and her daughter when Dr. Long says the following about her son: “He said to me the other night, ‘Mom, why does it matter where you go to school, as long as you go?’”
New Normal Rep’s production of Lines in the Dust is streaming on demand through Aug. 8. Tickets are $25, as well as $10 for students, educators, and theater professionals. To purchase tickets, go to NewNormalRep.org.