If you live in an affluent New Jersey neighborhood, your kids attend the state’s best public schools. And if your zip code happens to be Newark (or East Orange or Camden) … well, that’s just how it is. You and your children are told to make do with what’s available, even if that means metal detectors at the front door, overburdened teachers in overcrowded classrooms and drastically lower standards. The promise of Brown vs. Board of Education has been replaced by de facto segregation and a school system that’s cruelly unfair, and that’s just a fact.
In “Lines in the Dust,” now in a 13-performance run at two Jersey City venues — Merseles Studios and New Jersey City University’s West Side Theatre — a single mother living in Newark’s inner city lies and sends her daughter to public school in nearby Millburn, a well-heeled suburb. A bigoted private eye, hired to root out residency fraud, discovers the deception. And a well-meaning principal gets caught in the middle.
Obie-winning and Pulitzer-nominated actress and playwright Nikkole Salter sets her story in 2010. Barack Obama has been elected our first African-American president, but black women such Dr. Beverly Long and Denitra Morgan still face challenges engendered by generations of racial and economic inequality. We learn that Dr. Long (Tasha R. Williams) recently left a high-ranking administrative position in the Newark school system, overwhelmed by the impossibility of true change, and has become the interim principal of Millburn High School. Her tenure is rocked by a campus shooting, and residency fraud becomes an issue when it’s discovered that the boy who was murdered lived in Newark and had been attending the school illegally.
Beverly meets Denitra (Kerry Vivian Mantle) at an open house for a Millburn home on the market; they joke how the realtor insists there’s “little room for negotiation” on the exorbitant price. The two women develop a friendship, bound by ties of race and motherhood. When an obnoxious private eye named Mike DiMaggio (Thomas Grube) starts looking into residency discrepancies, he discovers that Denitra lives in Newark and has been lying, in a last-ditch attempt to give her daughter the chance of a decent education.
Both women find themselves in an impossible situation — Denitra is desperate to offer her daughter a chance for a better life, Beverly is bound by protocol and the law.
The play provides a voice to all sides. Once the truth comes out, Denitra tells Beverly how her own education in an underperforming Newark public school left her unprepared for even an open-enrollment junior college. “I had to spend two years in remedial English and math,” she tells Beverly. “How do you graduate from high school with straight A’s and not know how to read?”
DiMaggio represents the white working class who left Newark after the ’60s riots, and mourns the city he once knew and loved. He tells Beverly that it’s their job to represent their own community, not the downtrodden in nearby cities. People who pay high property taxes feel more invested in the schools they’re funding, he says: You let a lot of “them” in and everything goes to hell.
If Archie Bunker had grown up in the Newark Ironbound, he’d be Mike DiMaggio. But as despicable as he might come across, DiMaggio has the law on his side, which leaves Beverly feeling powerless and Denitra betrayed.
Williams and Mantle do a magnificent job of capturing the nuances of their characters — one well-educated and upper middle class, the other a product of the inner city. Unfortunately, Grube did not have time to learn his part, and read his lines from cheat sheets. He was effective in the role, but also a distraction. JCTC artistic director Olga Levina apologized during the intermission and promised that the situation would be rectified by the Oct. 24 performance.
The “black box” Merseles Studios doesn’t have a traditional stage, but director Cheryl Katz and set designer Grigory Gurevich use moving panels and projections to create the illusion of the principal’s office, Denitra’s home and a Board of Ed meeting.
“Lines in the Dust” makes for gritty, gripping theater, shining a light — and hopefully, opening a dialogue — on the institutional inequities of our public education system.
“Lines in the Dust” continues its run at Merseles Studios, Thursdays through Sundays through Nov. 3 (visit jctcenter.org), with additional shows Nov. 7-9 at New Jersey City University’s West Side Theatre (visit njcu.edu/community/center-arts/theatre-dance).
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