‘Lines in the Dust’ dramatizes endemic race discrimination in public education
From left, Kelly Jenrette, Tony Pasqualini, and Erica Tazel / Cristian Kreckler

LOS ANGELES, Calif. — Any number of milestones are marked with the current West Coast premiere production of Nikkole Salter’s Lines in the Dust (seen opening night, Nov. 4).

First, a word about the playwright, an OBIE Award-winner and author of eight full-length plays. Despite being a Los Angeles native—who is now Chair of the Theatre Department at Howard University—this production is the first of her works to be staged here. Salter wrote and acted in  the Pulitzer Prize-nominated play In the Continuum, which ran Off-Broadway and was chosen for a U.S. State Department and Bloomberg-sponsored international tour. Salter has also received a shelf-full of other awards.

Originally commissioned to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the historic 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which in theory if not in practice abolished “separate but equal” schools, and by implication other public facilities as well, Lines in the Dust can now anticipate by just a few months, the 70th anniversary of that landmark case.

The play now on the boards at the Matrix Theatre is the inaugural event of what promises to be a vital new force in Los Angeles theatre—a co-production by Collaborative Artists Bloc (CAB), Support Black Theatre (SBT), The Last Acting Studio (LAS), and Natasha Ward. CAB and SBT are dedicated to honing the professional capacities of performing arts organizations as they struggle to “create content of human and artistic value for social change,” in CAB’s words.

Finally, with a sense of tragic irony, this outing of Salter’s play recognizes the 60th anniversary of Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s inaugural speech (Jan. 14, 1963)—incredibly, almost a decade after Brown— in which he spoke these infamously recalled words from which the play derives its title: “In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust…and I say segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

Let no one believe that line no longer exists in today’s America. And that is what Lines in the Dust talks about. How different the education a child in Newark, N.J., receives compared to that of a child in Millburn, about 10 miles away! One is a big city of majority minority population, the other a community of white suburbanites. Guess which has the superior school system?

A fresh approach

Kelly Jenrette and Erica Tazel / Cristian Kreckler

A fresh approach to theater is also embodied in this play, as actors Kelly Jenrette and Erica Tazel, both Black women, switch roles. At any given performance you may see Jenrette as Beverly Long, the Millburn high school principal and Denitra Morgan, the Newark mother fighting for her daughter’s future (as we did on Nov. 4), or vice-versa. The implication is apparent: It all depends not on merit, but on your address, your access to a safe learning environment, to good mentoring, to a college education. Opportunity is a slippery quality, but far, far indeed from universal in America.

It’s correct to acknowledge how far our country has come even in our own lifetimes, but the burning issue is where we go from here. In the absence of any realistic alternative for her daughter Noel, Denitra concocts a Millburn street address and enrolls her in the mostly white high school. Within a few months, Noel’s grades start measurably improving as she finally finds herself in a place where her natural intelligence and curiosity can thrive. She’s now aiming for Princeton.

“I chose the lens of school residency fraud because I thought that it was a circumstance that allowed for the discussion to happen on a personal home base level, but also on a political level,” says Nikkole Salter. She wanted to explore why so many schools across America were still effectively, in all but name, segregated—and why so many of the magnet, honors, and gifted programs were disappearing. “What intrigued me most was how my sister and I embodied that. By the time my sister went to school, eight years after me, all the programs were gone. With the central relationship of Beverly and Denitra, I thought, what is it about our world that creates stratifications that divide people who should otherwise be sisters?”

“Once we decided to have two actresses switch back and forth between both lead roles,” explained Sophina Brown, founder and executive director of Support Black Theatre, “we knew we not only needed to cast two exceptionally skilled and empathetic artists, but also two women who were willing to viscerally explore and expose even the ugliest of truths that Nikkole has unearthed in this piece.”

The playwright pits one Black woman against another, with lies and misrepresentations crafted to skirt around the Millburn school district’s strict requirements. Both actresses, Brown continues, “step into these characters and courageously reveal deeply embedded, indoctrinated beliefs we don’t often discuss. Otherwise, those beliefs maintain the power to keep us divided— divided from one another and divided within ourselves. Erica and Kelly do this brilliantly.”

Directed by Desean K. Terry, the play delicately erases the thin line between observing and bending the law. When you break a law or tradition that is inherently racist and discriminatory, isn’t that in some way justifiable? How shall we judge the enslaved person who escapes? The teenagers who sit-in at a Woolworth lunch counter? The man who burns his draft card? The Black Lives Matter protesters who block traffic to drive home the urgency of rampant police murder?

In exploring the issue of separate and unequal schooling, Lines in the Dust looks not so much at formal stipulations that this school is for whites and the other, on the far side of the park, is for minorities. It’s a larger discussion than that. It involves not just city budgets but county budgets—and by extension, state and national priorities. Many might assume that more dollars flow to predominantly white schools, and fewer to mostly minority schools. The play brings out that in the case of Newark vs. Millburn, the opposite is true: $23K annually per student in the city, and $17K in the suburb. Why? Because poverty itself means that the classrooms are more crowded, the schools more regimented and policed, teacher turnover is greater, students are more prone to illness, absenteeism, special needs, family strife, more vulnerable to gangs and crime. But the county figures the extra money is worth it—to keep poor and colored people apart from the “respectable” people in smaller, whiter communities.

Maybe it should be everybody’s problem where kids are educated, Beverly offers.

Impacted him deeply

“I was surprised how deeply this story impacted me after I first read it,” says director Terry, “especially the ending. There’s something about these characters that seems spiritually iconic, and I think that people will relate to the different perspectives that Nikkole has cleverly created within this play. They’ll see these dualities within themselves. When one of the characters talks about choosing between the possibility of being ‘successful’ or keeping a sense of self, it’s a reminder that the flaws in capitalism always seem to hit hardest in the marginalized communities. One of the traps is when you give up on yourself.”

There is a third character in the play, the garrulous Michael (Mike) DiMaggio, enacted to a fault by the masterful Tony Pasqualini. He is a former cop and Vietnam-era soldier, born and raised in the Newark of his immigrant parents’ and grandparents’ generation—still pops in occasionally for his favorite pastries at Calandra’s bakery—and now a private investigator. He has insinuated himself into an assignment for the Millburn school board where he researches the supposedly fraudulent residencies of some of the minority students—costing the town that $17K per student every year that their parents, as taxpayers, don’t contribute toward.

As a Millburn resident himself, and activist with the town’s Concerned Citizens, Mike argues that the excellence of a community’s school system is vital to attract stable (read: white) residents with an eye toward increasing property values. And property taxes obviously translate into better schools. He obfuscates his open embrace of cringeworthy race-baiting rhetoric—not failing to include the Jews and Puerto Ricans—by claiming that, hey, he was born poor, too, but his family never flaunted the law to make it in America. He cynically neglects to factor in that though a century ago his ancestors were not considered “white,” they are now, and no one is disparaging them any more for their origin, or color. Now he disparages the “outside elements.”

Salter is profoundly interested in the social mechanisms capitalism has developed to keep people of color in their place—redlining, the inherited wealth gap, the education gap, predatory policing—and one of them being such “concerned citizens” groups. She also puts into high relief the different cultural worlds Beverly and Denitra inhabit, forcing them, by virtue of their distinct circumstances, to oppose one another.

But if Denitra sees no alternative for her child than to break an unfair law, she is apparently not aware of, or engaged with, any Newark political or social change organizations that might help her, as a resident and parent, transform her city and county. The issues the playwright raises are real and palpable, but are the solutions only individual? The concept of collective action is remarked upon on the political right, but why not on the political left—or even the center? That is what I might ask in response to this play.

Lines in the Dust plays for 105 minutes without intermission, and it is riveting from beginning to final curtain, with a number of intriguing twists. Salter ends with an open question. Clearly, all her characters have shifted, some more than others, once awareness of their relative positions in the social hierarchy dawns. She challenges each of her characters to see the other in themselves. The final note, gratefully, is not one of despair. The playwright introduces a faintly discernible ray of hope. How to interpret it, or even believe it, will be up to the individual playgoer.

Salter’s writing is prickly and on-point. Everybody’s coming from someplace, and has plenty of good reasons for saying what they say and behaving as they do. A playgoer’s empathy will extend to all, not in equal measure and not all the time. These are tough issues that American society must deal with, and sooner rather than later; but the nature of capitalism itself is what’s under the playwright’s magnifying glass. As shown by the ongoing and ever nastier war on public education itself, the social fabric is tearing apart day after day.

Production values are uniformly excellent. Mark Mendelson did the scenic design, Alexis Tongue the sound design, Derrick McDaniel the lighting, and Wendell C. Carmichael the costumes. Zoë Carr supplied the props, and Sean Cawelti the projection design. Lindsay A. Jenkins served as dramaturg, Kamal Bolden as assistant director, and Rich Wong as production stage manager.

Lines in the Dust continues through Dec. 10 with performances Thurs. at 8 p.m., Fri. at 8:30 p.m., Sat. at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sun. at 2 and 7 p.m., at the Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles 90046. Reservations can be secured here; or for more information call (310) 619-6322.

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Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.