By Ruth Ross
In Essex County—specifically, the city of Newark—education is a "hot" topic, with a contentious relationship existing between the state-appointed superintendent and the parents and teachers. No one seems to be listening to anyone else, and the children are suffering. In sharp contrast, suburban schools are flourishing, with 99% graduation rates, high SAT scores and most students going on to college. Urban parents look on, yearning for similar circumstances for their own children.
For its 22nd season, Luna Stage commissioned playwright Nikkole Salter to write a play about public education in New Jersey. The result is Lines in the Dust, a drama about residency fraud, a crime perpetrated by parents who submit false addresses, tax records and the like to enroll their children in these successful schools while not living in the community. Upon discovery by an attendance officer appointed by the school board to ferret out students who do not reside in town, the parents and kids are usually punished by "expulsion and restitution." (Photo L-R: Erin Cherry and Dorcas Sowunmi)
Luna Stage is to be commended for commissioning plays from young playwrights (this is their second) and giving them polished productions. Once again, the company and playwright have given us riveting, entertaining, illuminating and thought-provoking theater.
Set in 2009-2010, the play focuses on Princeton University graduate Dr. Beverly Long, a former school official in Newark (now a Millburn resident), who has been hired as the town's interim high school principal. Mike DiMaggio (a Newark resident in his youth), the retired detective hired to investigate residence fraud, reveals that Denitra Morgan, an acquaintance, has illegally enrolled her daughter in the suburban school, and Denitra begs Dr. Long for help. The conflicting loyalties felt by each of the three characters form the crux of the play, keeping the audience enthralled in the dilemma.
As he proved in last season's Luna production of Master Harold...and the Boys, director Reginald L. Douglas employs just the right directorial touch to keep the drama at an appropriate tension while avoiding histrionics. Thus, instead of being a polemic against residency fraud, Lines in the Dust becomes a personal story of three strivers, all of whom are seeking to arrive at (or in the case of Mike, to maintain) success.
The three actors do similar justice to the material in their nuanced and convincing portrayals of three complicated individuals. Dorcas Sowunmi is totally believable as Dr. Long, mindful of her precarious occupational situation and her path to that position, as well as being sympathetic to Denitra's predicament. Her discomfort in various situations is evident in her facial expressions and body English—especially when she discovers her friend's daughter's name on a "red flag" list Mike has compiled. When, in one of the final scenes, Sowunmi finally lets us peek behind her character's professional curtain, she depicts a woman who realizes that her quest for a better education for herself has had a profound, even negative, impact on her own sense of self. (Above L-R: Erin Cherry and Dorcas Sowunmi)
As her abrasive nemesis, Mike DiMaggio, Rick Delaney (left, with Cherry) is the quintessential (and self-described) "Nicky Newark," complete with New Jersey accent, grammar gaffes, salt-of-the-earth demeanor. He has no sense of personal boundaries, especially upon meeting Dr. Long in her office for the first time (he calls her "Bev" without permission), and cringe-worthy bigoted remarks fall out of his mouth without his being aware that he is addressing a woman of color. Though unsympathetic in the first three quarters of the play, Delaney deftly shows us near the end that Mike isn't a complete idiot, but a complicated individual.
The cause of all this hullaballoo is Denitra Morgan, superbly portrayed by Erin Cherry. Full of vinegar and bravado in the opening scenes, Cherry credibly conveys the woman's terror when confronted by Dr. Long in her Newark apartment. And Cherry’s impassioned defense of Denitra's dreams for her daughter Noelle melts every heart in the audience.
Although Salter's play is well-written, there are a few inconsistencies. At the outset, Denitra passes herself off as a lawyer, yet when talking to Beverly in the opening scene, she never finishes a sentence, and her syntax and diction do not sound like that of an educated person. That an astute person like Beverly does not pick up on the inconsistency is baffling; most of the audience has probably figured out that she was an impostor long before Beverly does. The ending could have been a tad stronger, too. Given Beverly's knowledge of the Newark school system, she could offer to help Denitra get Noelle a quality education in her own district. That would not be a “pat,” happily-ever-after, trite ending, but it would offer hope in the difficult situation.
Deborah Wheatley has outdone herself with terrific stage design; one scene change even got applause! Julian Evan's sound design, audio snippets of famous people speaking about civil rights (Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Orval Faubus, to name a few), really helped set the cultural and historical atmosphere. Costumes by Deborah Caney were appropriate to the characters; Dorcas Sowunmi’s attire fit the professional mien of a school administrator. Mike Riggs' lighting directs our attention to the various venues; the PowerPoint Mike presents at the end is very moving.
The title, Lines in the Dust, refers to the physical boundary lines between communities, as well as referencing Southern segregationist Gov. referencing Southern segregationist Gov. George Wallace of Arkansas who advocated drawing metaphorical "lines in the dust" to maintain "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." Both meanings are important today, as the gulf between educational opportunities for urban and suburban students widens. Lines in the Dust is a worthy addition to Nikkole Salter's canon. Kudos to Luna Stage for having commissioned the play and for giving us a production that fulfills the company's motto: Illuminate Your World.
Lines in the Dust will be performed at Luna Stage, 555 Valley Road, West Orange, through November 9. There will be talkbacks after the performances on October 23 and 30. For information and tickets, call the box office at 973.395.5551 or visit www.lunastage.org online.
Photos by Steven Lawler