New Normal Rep, founded during the coronavirus shutdown of live theater in 2020, is dedicated to presenting both new and under-produced plays on the internet, centered primarily on works that explore cultural, racial, and socio-economic perspectives reflective of our diverse and fractured world. As with the previous productions in its inaugural season, the company’s latest online offering, Lines in the Dust, does just that.
Originally commissioned by Luna Stage in West Orange, NJ, to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education – the Supreme Court’s 1954 landmark decision prohibiting segregation in public schools – the play, by award-winning actress and Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer Nikkole Salter, is set in Essex County, NJ, in 2009-10, but its central themes remain hot-button topics today.
The story revolves around the falsification of home addresses by parents in the urban school district of Newark so that their children could have access to better educational opportunities by attending high school in the more affluent and higher-achieving suburb of Millburn. Salter’s provocative three-hander raises many issues that are debated, but not really settled, as the characters – all three born and raised in Newark, all hard-working, but each with a different perspective on knowingly breaking the law in the struggle for a better education and life – reveal their backstories, along with their covert biases, overt frustrations, and expressed anger at each other and with the system.
Directed by Awoye Timpo, the compelling cast of Melissa Joyner as the working-class single mother Denitra (who lied and falsified paperwork to get her daughter enrolled), Jeffrey Bean as the private investigator Mike (hired to uncover the fraudulent enrollments), and Lisa Rosetta Strum as the high-school principal Beverly (whose job is in jeopardy when she’s caught in the middle), deliver the experiences, opinions, and emotions inherent in their disparate roles. And though the dialogue is often reduced to polemics and the debate is clearly slanted in favor of Denitra’s objectives (with Bev and Mike too unexpectedly and easily persuaded, even after their own positions are threatened), many important points are raised by all sides: complex issues about race and class; crime and safety; the tax base and government funding; the rules and who makes or breaks them; the difficulty of fitting in; and the desire of parents to give the best to their child, no matter what the risk or sacrifice (including the need for withdrawal to avoid the call for expulsion and restitution).
In the end, though the characters all begin to understand the profoundly human issues at stake, there is no simple or satisfying resolution in the ongoing movement toward equal opportunity and the shared quest to achieve the American dream. The play and the actors effectively deliver that momentous message, in a virtual production with top-notch technical direction by Adriana Gaviria and editing by Hiatt Woods.
Running Time: Approximately one hour and 50 minutes.
Lines in the Dust streams July 8-August 8, at New Normal Rep. For tickets (priced at $25 for general admission, with discounts available to students, educators, and theater professionals), go online. For a preview of the drama, watch the trailer below: