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Theater Review: Lines in the Dust

Kelly Jenrette and Erica Tazel in Lines in the Dust. Photo by Matthew Law.

Drawing a line in the sand means identifying dire consequences and refusing to allow the crossing of a metaphorical line that would cause them. In his 1963 inaugural speech, Alabama Governor George Wallace invoked the idiom when he said, “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.”

This famous quote inspired Lines in the Dust by Los Angeles playwright Nikkole Salter, here in her hometown debut presented by Collaborative Artists Bloc and Support Black Theatre. Salter draws a clear “line” from Wallace’s ugly rallying cry to today’s cities, where the longtime effects of redlining, zoning and deeply ingrained racism perpetuate segregation.

The city in Lines in the Dust is Newark, New Jersey; it is contrasted to the lovely suburban community of Millburn, with its highly rated public schools. We meet the two main characters, Beverly Long (Kelly Jenrette in the performance I saw) and Denitra Morgan (Erica Tazel) at an open house. Beverly is the interim principal of Millburn’s high school and Denitra a house-hunting corporate attorney. They hit it off immediately.

Denitra’s daughter ends up in Beverly’s high school, where she excels. But, as Beverly is informed by private investigator Michael DiMaggio (Tony Pasqualini), the school is a target for Newark students whose parents register them under false pretenses and addresses. These students, while less than one percent of the population, must nevertheless be rooted out and expelled—plus charged fees for their illegal time on campus.

Kelly Jenrette and Tony Paqualini in Lines in the Dust. Photo by Cristian Kreckler.

Pasqualini is appropriately cringeworthy; his DiMaggio’s barely concealed racism guides a zeal for identifying school residency fraud. He even prepares a PowerPoint for the school board giving his own background as a child of Newark who made it out and now protects suburbanites from his now scorned birthplace. His self-righteous code words are triggering. Salter perfectly captures the nuance of the systemic racism that puts diversity and safety on opposite sides of the right-to-education equation.

The two leads are breathtaking in their ability to inhabit the passionate and strong Black women who end up on opposite sides of that equation. What makes their performances even more impressive is that they alternate roles each week, underscoring the challenges faced by Black families to attain high-quality education for their children.

Desean K. Terry, Founding Artistic Director of Collaborative Artists Bloc, directs with style, keeping things moving energetically throughout this gripping tale.

Lines in the Dust runs through Dec. 10 at the Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave. Tickets are $55 and are available here.

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Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen has lived in the Brookside neighborhood since 1993. She works as a freelance writer, editor and consultant. She's also a playwright affiliated with Theatre West.

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