“Lines in the Dust,” which New Normal Rep is streaming online through August 8th, is Nikkole Salter’s three-character play about a vexing side effect of modern-day segregation. It was originally produced in 2014 by Luna Stage, a New Jersey theater that commissioned it to commemorate the then-60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court ruling that was intended to end segregation in public schools nationwide. That is not what has happened, as Salter makes clear in her very title, a phrase that comes from Alabama Governor George Wallace’s infamous 1963 inaugural address (“I draw the line in the dust…and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”) and makes its way into the play. It is uttered by private investigator Mike DiMaggio, a retired police detective who is hired by the Board of Education of Millburn, N.J. to investigate “school residency fraud.”
Millburn, N.J. is an affluent, mostly white community less than 12 miles west of Newark, whose Board of Education did in fact hire a firm in 2014 to root out students whose families didn’t actually live within the township’s borders, but were using false addresses in order to attend Millburn schools.
To Mike (Jeffrey Bean), the fraud is not just a crime (“a felony in some states.”) It threatens the safety and stability of the entire town — a threat that needs vigilance to beat back.
“Nobody’s immune,” says Mike to the principal of Millburn High School. “There’s no wall keeping them over there and us over here. It’s just a line. A line in the dust.”
This is one of several moments in the play that seem to tar the character as an unreconstructed bigot. At another point he rants about how “The Jews are always the ones lettin’ people in.” Still, the playwright manages largely to avoid turning “Lines in the Dust” into a mere polemic with a cardboard villain. She makes Mike personable (helped by Bean’s performance) and supplies him with arguments for his concerns that include facts, statistics, and his own experience growing up in Newark, which he watched implode after the 1967 riot. More importantly, the playwright focuses the drama on the two other characters.
In the first scene of the play, Dr. Beverly Long (Lisa Rosetta Strum) and Denitra Morgan (Melissa Joyner) meet at an open house for a $900,000 home in Millburn, and bond over their ridicule of the condescending attitude of the real estate agent towards these “two beautiful, capable, educated Black women,” as Bev puts it.
Bev, a Princeton graduate with three degrees and a husband who’s an engineer, is house-shopping in Millburn because she is about to take over as principal of Millburn High School. Denitra had told Bev she’s a corporate lawyer. But, as we eventually learn, she was lying. She has no plans to buy a house, nor any income to do so; she brings her daughter Noelle to these open houses to “expose her to the possibilities” of a life beyond their current struggling subsistence. The next scene occurs eighteen months later, when both Bev’s son and Denitra’s daughter are students at Millburn High School. Bev is under stress because a student has been murdered, and the school board discovers that his address was a false one, leading to a schoolwide audit of addresses, and the contracting of Mike’s investigative services. That’s how Bev finds out Denitra’s lies — that she used that unsold house as her daughter’s address, while they actually live in Newark.
Salter, who is best known as the Obie-winning co-author (along with Danai Gurira) of “In the Continuum,” a play about two Black women worlds apart who both contract HIV from their men, is adept at depicting Bev and Denitra as kindred spirits — united by race and gender and some common experience (Bev grew up in Newark public housing) but now separated by class. Aided by two fine performances, the two characters do not feel just like mouthpieces. They are friends, despite Bev’s feeling of betrayal, and Denitra’s anger that Bev can’t see how Noelle deserves the same special breaks that Bev herself got as a child. Their continued connection injects a sense of hopefulness in the play that they (and by extension everybody) can reach a solution, even as the characters illustrate the different sides of the debate over education, race and class in America — the kind of contentious debate that is most often made over charter schools.
Salter doesn’t mention charter schools in the play, but she seems to make some of the same blanket assumptions that supporters of charter schools do. One leaves the play with the message that Newark’s public schools are all hell holes that one can survive only by escaping. I don’t know enough to disagree, but I appreciated the more nuanced view in a discussion thread on Reddit about the Newark school system.
It’s easier to embrace Bev’s analysis of the causes of the schools’ problems, and her solution. When Mike argues that Newark actually spends way more money per pupil than Millburn, with far worse results, Bev says: “Your kids, they don’t have to battle crime and violence and metal detectors and police brutality and gang members and child care facilities for the children of teenagers, and no lunch money, and generations of under and miseducation and low expectations and black faces saying, ‘stop acting white, how dare you try to be more,’ and white faces saying, ‘get back to your town, you’re black, you aren’t good enough to be here with us’…
“Lumping poor people together costs everyone more. That’s the problem. The concentration. Not the kids. The cost would be lower if the schools were integrated.”
Lines in the Dust
New Normal Rep
through August 8, 2021
Running time: about two hours
Tickets: $25 ($10 for students, educators and theater professionals)
Written by Nikkole Salter
Directed by Awoye Timpo
Virtual Technical Director: Adriana Gaviria
Editor: Hiatt Woods
Costume design by Qween Jean,multi-media design by Afsoon Pajoufar, sound design by Stan Mathabane, and original music by Alphonso Horne
Cast: Jeffrey Bean, Melissa Joyner and Lisa Rosetta Strum