“Opportunity is about positioning.” So says Denitra Morgan in Lines in the Dust, a powerful drama beginning today on NewNormalRep.org. Though set in 2009 and 2010, the play is a well-constructed examination of the systemic racism that still proliferates our educational institutions. Built on the relationships formed among a handful of characters, it illustrates just how easy it is for people to move those dusty lines that are theoretically put in place to protect a community and transform them into rigid roadblocks used to constrain those who are less privileged.
The action takes place in Millburn, a New Jersey suburb that is home to an upscale mall and Regional Theater Tony winning Paper Mill Playhouse. With one of the highest income averages in the state, the residents support a public school system with a student/teacher ratio of 11 to 1. So it is unsurprising that Denitra has gone to great lengths to place her studious daughter at Millburn Township High School. There, the teen is thriving academically under the watchful eye of Interim Principal Dr. Beverly Long, whom the girl idolizes.
Denitra and Beverly had met as the only two Black people at an open house. They bonded over the many racist euphemisms employed by the real estate agent representing the nearly $900,000 property. Now a year and a half later, Denitra is in Beverly’s office trying to straighten out her daughter’s registration paperwork. Her timing could not be worse. Beverly is under considerable pressure because a student who was shot and killed turned out to be a so-called “border hopper” from nearby Newark. Blacker and poorer, nearly 1 in 8 residents in that city don’t graduate from high school, making it tempting for ambitious parents to falsify their home addresses in order to send their children to Millburn instead. At the insistence of the school board, Beverly has just hired Mike DiMaggio, a private investigator, to look into possible other incidents of residence fraud.
Based on events all too familiar to her, Pulitzer nominee Nikkole Salter’s script is economical, with every line providing meaning and insight. Though the issues discussed are well-known, they are deeply humanized by her characters. As embodied by Melissa Joyner, Denitra’s frustration and anger reverberate with genuine rawness. Lisa Rosetta Strum gives Beverly a foundation of both tenderness and professionalism. Their performances are nurtured by director Awoye Timpo with the action crisply edited by Hiatt Woods. Not only is the relationship of these two bright women beautifully rendered, but the connection to their children and their deep understanding of what they each represent to the larger world are also apparent. Much of that knowledge and acceptance is brought forth by their interactions with DiMaggio (a fierce Jeffrey Bean), a man so deeply enmeshed in a fantasy version of safety and fairness that he can’t even see his prejudice when it’s doused in spotlights.
As with the other projects presented by New Normal Rep, Afsoon Pajoufar’s production design is precise without being distracting. An original jazzy score by Alphonso Horne becomes increasingly cacophonous, reflecting the devolving situation. Qween Jean provides the well chosen outfits, from Beverly’s bold and polished attire to Denitra’s slightly too casual look.
Lines in the Dust is created specifically for theater lovers who are still not comfortable being in an enclosed space with strangers. Thoughtful performances and expressive dialogue move it beyond an issue play into the realm of truly satisfying home entertainment. Offered on demand through August 8 at NewNormalRep.org, it runs one hour and fifty minutes with a brief intermission. Tickets are $25 with discounts available for students, educators and theater professionals, and can be purchased at NewNormalRep.org.