Tag Archives: New Normal Rep

Lines in the Dust – Streaming On Demand

“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.

Melissa Joyner and Jeffrey Bean in Lines in the Dust

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.

Two Sisters and a Piano – Streaming on Demand

1991 was the beginning of a particularly challenging time for the Cuban people.  Perestroika had led to the break up of the Soviet Union, which began pulling troops and support from the Communist island nation.  It is against the backdrop of the resulting shortages and protests that Nilo Cruz sets Two Sisters and a Piano.  While he frequently explores the immigrant experience, here amnesty and escape remain out of reach.  Written four years before his Pulitzer Prize winning Anna in the Tropics, this work is spun tightly around sisters Sofia and Maria Celia who are fighting the diminishing effect of living under house arrest.  Sofia soothes herself by playing a decaying family piano and eavesdropping on her neighbor, while celebrated author Maria Celia pours her soul into letters to her absent husband.  Their country may be playing host to the Pan American Games, but the only sense of movement in their lives comes from their trips to the roof.  An opening is punctured in the crushing claustrophobia when the dashing Lieutenant Portuondo begins romantically pursuing Maria Celia; a relationship that offers both promises and threats.

The production currently being streamed by New Normal Rep springs to life in minute one when the silence of the opening credits is shattered by the entrance of two officers searching the sisters’ abode.  Despite limited physical action, the timing of the actors gives the drama a strong beating pulse throughout the two hours.  The opening interrogation sets the scene as well as the pace.  We can see the stained and browning walls and the once-grand furnishings beautifully rendered by Vanessa Corrente.  Like the previous NNR production, the Zoom backgrounds are designed to look contiguous making the staging appear more cohesive than many online offerings.  Bumper shots of Cuba pop splashes of color into the somberness.  Music by Sancho & Morin — both original songs and classical pieces — provide a wistful soundtrack for old memories and developing stories.

Florencia Lozano, Jimmy Smits and Daphne Rubin-Vega in NNR’s Two Sisters and a Piano

While the Russians may be receding from Cuba in the plot, their influence is ever present on stage.  The similarity between this work and that of Anton Chekhov is clear in both the emotional tides experienced by the characters and the poetry of the language they employ.  Also serving as director, Mr. Cruz enhances this flavor, developing a particularly strong chemistry between his two actresses.  He choreographs the luminous Florencia Lozano in the graceful and carefully considered gestures of the cerebral Maria Celia and brings forth a widening ripple of menace from deep inside a smoldering Jimmy Smits as Portuondo.  Daphne Rubin-Vega, who played the role of Sofia in 1999 at the Public Theater, repeats her performance, but this time her hair bows and childish mannerisms ultimately take on an uncomfortable Baby Jane quality.  Her strongest scene is with the charmingly awkward piano tuner played by Gary Perez as he tries to reverse the results of the instrument’s neglect as well as that of its owner.

Our collective desire to break free from our homes and a desperation for connection gives Two Sisters and a Piano an air of relatability at this precarious time.  It is available to stream on demand from the New Normal Rep website for $25 ($10 for students and theater professionals) through May 23.

Jericho – Streaming on Demand

One in three American families has lost someone to the COVID-19 pandemic.  The grief of individuals has become hard to process in the face of daily headlines and our collective mourning as a nation.  The decision to launch New Normal Rep with the company Artistic Director Jack Canfora’s own Jericho superbly meets this searing moment in our history.  This drama interlaced with comedic exchanges features two families whose lives have been impacted by the events of 9/11, another tragedy with deep historic significance.  It is an entertaining vehicle that provides an opportunity to explore the search for identify and the need to feel connected to something (or someone) meaningful.  

At the opening we meet Beth (Eleanor Handley) whose husband Alec died in the towers.  It is clear that her therapy and drug regimen aren’t having the desired affect.  To Beth and us, her 67 year old Korean female therapist looks exactly like her 40-something Black husband.  (CK Allen’s simultaneous portrayal of two such disparate people is a delightful highlight of this online event).  After nearly four years, Beth is finally dating somewhat seriously.  Her boyfriend Ethan (Michael Satow) is incredibly understanding of her slow progress towards intimacy.  His brother Josh (Jason O’Connell) escaped from tower two and has had what the family views as a “crazy” response to his brush with death. While the Hartmans have always been secular Jews who didn’t think twice about serving lobster at a wedding, Josh has become so devote he can only envision living out his life in Israel.  His religious fixation is particularly hard on his wife Jess (a fully present and wonderfully layered Carol Todd) who has seen her own future severely altered with his change of priorities.  The threads of all of their stories will be pulled tightly together over a typically taut Thanksgiving dinner in the home of Hartman matriarch Rachel (Jill Eikenberry).

Eleanor Handley & CK Allen in JERICHO, © New Normal Rep

In her direction of this the Zoom-based production, Marsha Mason has mixed elements of stage and screen technique.  Occasional tight close-ups and establishing exterior shots are mixed with the now familiar talking heads in individual boxes.  The shifts of style make what should be a first-rate theater experience feel studied and distanced.  The clean set is designed to make the backgrounds appear contiguous when characters are in the same room.  But though they rehearsed together in quarantine, the actors come across as six skilled monologuist rather than a cohesive ensemble. 

Written in another decade, Jericho still provides delicious food for thought.  As we work through this challenging time, each of us must decide what provides us with meaning and is therefore fundamental to who we are.  The play is streaming from NewNormalRep.org. through Sunday, April 4.  Tickets can be purchased on the site and cost $25; $10 tickets are available for students and theater professionals. The On-Demand show includes options for HD and closed captioning.  Running time is a little over two hours plus a ten minute intermission.  The intention of NNR is to continue to build a streaming company that meets this moment of transformation in live theater.  Four-play subscriptions are available for $100, and include free access to special programming including live play-readings, special Q&A discussions and virtual happy hours.