Cleveland Public Theatre carves out powerful ‘Lines in the Dust’
By Bob Abelman
“The people came out of their houses and smelled the hot stinging air and covered their noses from it. … The men were silent and they did not move often. And the women came out of the houses to stand beside their men — to feel whether this time the men would break. … The children peeked at the faces of the men and women, and then drew careful lines in the dust with their toes. … Then they asked, ‘What’ll we do?’”
This excerpt from John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” lays bare the quiet desperation of poor families driven from their homes by drought, dust and the economic hardship of the 1930s. And it shows us the things despondent people will do to survive with dignity.
“In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
This excerpt comes from George Wallace’s inaugural address, delivered in 1963 following his election as governor of Alabama. And it shows us the things defensive people will do to keep others from surviving with dignity.
Crossing a dividing line in the dust that separates a better life from those who desire it is a high-risk endeavor, regardless of whether it is drawn in the dead corn fields of Depression-era Oklahoma, the cold concrete portico of the civil rights-era Alabama State Capitol building or — as demonstrated in Nikkole Salter’s 2014 play — in the war-zone classrooms of contemporary Newark, N.J.
“Lines in the Dust,” at Cleveland Public Theatre, finds Denitra Morgan (Nichole Sumlin) losing the charter school lottery for her daughter and having to find another way to escape their woefully underperforming neighborhood school. Illegal district-jumping to the nearby upper-class white suburb seems the most viable option until the Morgans, who are black, fall under the scrutiny of Millburn High School’s investigation into school residency fraud.
The investigation is spearheaded by black interim principal Beverly Long (Kimberly Sias), a sympathetic Newark native and Princeton graduate. Hired by the school board to conduct an enrollment audit that will result in student expulsion is Mike DiMaggio (Skip Corris), a white, blatantly bigoted private investigator personally vested in the Millburn neighborhood.
At first glance, “Lines in the Dust” is one of those issue-driven, pontificating public-service plays that are more edifying than entertaining. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
In this commissioned work by New Jersey’s Luna Stage, the playwright was asked to use the life and work of Robert L. Carter as inspiration. Carter had a significant hand in many historic legal challenges to racial discrimination, none more momentous than Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 case that led to a U.S. Supreme Court decision abolishing legal segregation in the public schools.
The script, which fictionalizes the current state of apartheid schooling in our country while infusing it with plenty of facts about functional illiteracy and its ramifications, is long. It contains lengthy speeches filled with admonishment that are meant to be loudly delivered. And, according to the New York Times review of the world premiere production at Luna Stage, the work is “unsatisfying” and “heavy-handed.”
Not in this CPT production. Under the compelling direction of Beth Wood, “Lines in the Dust” is wonderful.
The work is tempered by immense artistry that finds a calming rhythm for the play’s impassioned argumentation, bolsters the smaller, personal moments cowering amid the politics and community outreach, and milks all the drama in the diatribes.
Set designer Douglas Puskas helps filter out much of the oppressive realism in the script by devising an airy impression for the play’s locations. A wall-less principal’s office with an empty archway for a door is created for Beverly, bordered by appropriate artifacts like whiteboards and diplomas that are suspended from the ceiling. On both sides are islands with one or two pieces of furniture that represent other settings.
In the background, running the height and length of the performance space, is a chain-link fence that, when backlit by Wes Calkin, makes for a dramatic rendition of the line in the dust between Newark and Millburn. When characters precariously cross it during scene segues, they are accompanied by an effectively haunting, pulsating soundtrack devised y Daniel McNamara.
But what turns the play’s education into entertainment are the three incredible actors, who not only give voice to cogent arguments but do so with honest expression, raw emotion and layers of complexity and creativity. Sias, Sumlin and Corris make both sides of the line seem viable, which makes for great theater. CV
WHAT: “Lines in the Dust”
WHERE: Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., Cleveland
WHEN: Through June 18
TICKETS & INFO: $12-$30. Call 216-631-2727 or visit cptonline.org.
Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3.
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on June 10, 2016.
Lead image: Kim Sias as Principal Beverly Long. PHOTO | Steve Wagner