Watch “The Line” below.
Alison Pill as Jennifer, a first-year intern in emergency medicine at a hospital in Brooklyn, explains that she chose her profession after listening to the war stories from her Czech grandparents, who lived through two World Wars and an invasion. “I wanted to have a skill that I could trade for food or money, to protect my family. I always had a kind of apocalyptic view of the world. Everyone laughed at me. And here we are.”
She is one of the seven frontline medical workers in New York– two doctors, three nurses, an Emergency Medical Technician and a paramedic — who tell their own wartime stories of dealing with COVID-19 in “The Line,” available for free on the Public Theater’s YouTube channel through August 4. It is the latest documentary play by the team that produced “The Exonerated” and “Coal Country.” Although their names have been changed to preserve their anonymity, as we’re told at the beginning of the hour-long video, none of the characters are composites. The concrete details of their lives and the stories they tell, performed by a spot-on cast, help make this play so devastating.
In alternating short monologues, the characters first introduce themselves, explaining why they went into their field; describe how they first heard about the coronavirus; and then take us through their experiences over the last few months. David (Santino Fontana), who grew up on Long Island, had been a professional actor, but then his mother was hospitalized, and after talking to the nurses, he thought nursing would be “a great side-job.” His very first shift changed his mind. “They always told us in acting school, ‘If you can find something else that you love, do it.’ And I didn’t think I would, but I did.” (It’s fascinating to hear how his acting training helps him as a nurse.)
In what turns out to be a bit of foreshadowing, he explains how his uncle saw him portray Moonlight Martin in “Anything Goes” and every time they saw each other after that, his uncle would parrot back the lyric sung in Brooklynese: “There’s something wrong here.” As the pandemic intensifies, David must deal not only with strangers who get sick, but also with that same uncle who contracts the virus.
Sharon (Lorraine Toussaint), a no-nonsense nurse in a nursing home, gets COVID herself. Her son, who is a security guard in a hospital, also gets it, after being given inadequate protection. The hospital is so overcrowded, she has to beg to be admitted. “I’ve never been that sick in my life. But I made it. And then I come back to work and find out that half of my population is gone. Wiped out.”
Vikram (Arjun Gupta), an emergency room physician, also contracts the disease, and after he recovers, volunteers to work at a hospital in the Bronx. “From the moment I got there it was utter chaos,” with a third of the doctors out sick, and 16-hour days. If he was struck by the “shared vulnerability” worldwide, which only “certain communities could escape.” The video of George Floyd being killed, Vikram observes, “woke up millions of people. Right? But with medicine there is no video; there’s no way to show people the racism that’s caused these disparate outcomes with COVID.”
The stories they tell drive home how overwhelmed the system, how inadequate the support, and how distressing the experience. “We just started hearing cardiac arrest, cardiac arrest, cardiac arrest,” says Oscar (John Ortiz), an EMT. “Like ‘Oh my God, that’s the fifth one in an hour?’ Just back to back to back. Before Covid I had maybe 10-15 cardiac arrests for the whole year. But one week I had 13 deaths that week.” Oscar explains how when a patient died in his ambulance, he waited to transport the body to the morgue whenever possible, to allow the family to go in the back and say their goodbye. “There were no funerals.”
If as veteran paramedic Ed (Jamey Sheridan) says, “we were all scared, so just coming to work was an act of — heroism, whatever that means,” none of the people who speak in “The Line” like being called a hero. “Everyone talks about the ‘healthcare heroes,’ the nurses and the doctors and professional staff,” says Dwight (Nicholas Pinnock), an oncology nurse “But environmental services, they had to come in. Food services, they had to come in. The security guards had to come in. Cleaning people. And they are just forgotten.”
“NOW we’re heroes,” David says, annoyed. “What the fuck do you think we were doing before all of this? All of a sudden, because we can die, now we’re heroes?”
Written by Jessica Blank and Eric Jensen
Directed by Jessica Blank
Original music composition by Aimee Mann and Jonathan Coulton
Cast: Santino Fontana (David), Arjun Gupta (Vikram), John Ortiz (Oscar), Alison Pill (Jennifer), Nicholas Pinnock (Dwight), Jamey Sheridan (Ed), and Lorraine Toussaint (Sharon).
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The Physician Affiliate Group of New York (PAGNY) is one of the largest physicians group in the nation. PAGNY and its Health & Research Foundation created the PAGNY COVID Relief Fund to provide frontline workers with help and continuing emotional health supports. Learn more and consider providing support: https://www.pagny.org/donation/
Health disparities among New Yorkers are large, persistent, and increasing. Public Health Solutions (PHS) exists to change that trajectory and support vulnerable New York City families in living their healthiest lives. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an unprecedented number of New Yorkers turning to PHS for basic necessities such as food and health insurance support. Learn more and consider providing support: https://www.healthsolutions.org/get-involved/events/.