Cleveland Public Theatre’s “Lines in the Dust” Powerful, Meaty Drama About The Educational System
By Marjorie Preston
Cleveland Public Theatre‘s current production of “Lines in the Dust” by Nikkole Salter delves behind the scenes in the lives of three New Jerseyans: a school principal, a parent and an investigator hired to investigate “district hopping.” The script is meaty and gets right to discussion – as there is much to discuss – and there is some occasional comic relief.
Millburn, New Jersey is a desirable suburb for its high-performing schools and safe streets. But underneath it is a latent racism that is challenged when a student at Millburn High School is shot and the student is found to actually be from Newark. The school district sets out to find out how many of its students have been similarly “district hopping,” living in one school district, but illegally sending kids each day to a different district.
Principal Beverly Long (Kimberly Sias) is charged with the task of compiling a report to the school board with the help of Michael DiMaggio, Private Investigator (Skip Corris). A parent at the school, Denitra Morgan (Nicole Sumlin), who has close ties to the principal, has been falsifying records to the school for a year when it is found that she and her daughter live in Newark and are trying to get out of sub-par schools there. They aren’t the only ones.
Sias capably plays the frazzled yet competent principal struggling to make sense of a new city and new job where her role has shifted to keeping people out. Her strong and caring portrayal of the professional with a conscience illuminates the battle she is fighting internally as well as externally, to come to grips with her own desire for upward mobility.
Sumlin plays her character nimbly, flying just under the radar, dismissing the red flag on her daughter’s account as a clerical error in an attempt to stay in the district. She is selflessly working for her daughter, and her struggle is palpable just under the surface, to help her daughter see things with hopeful eyes. We feel that while she is breaking the law, she is learning to have confidence and fight for a different future for her daughter than she had.
Corris, skillful in a role he inhabits seamlessly, works because he expects a suburb to have a certain character and he fears the “outside element.” His cloaked racism and entitlement is challenged, and as he works on his presentation to the school board, he shows his character begins to change as he understands why kids don’t want to go to school in a district with such concentrated poverty.
Director Beth Wood has assembled a stellar, perfect cast for “Lines in the Dust.” The drama is chock full of thought-provoking opinions which change as the characters learn more background on the subject they are living daily. The script allows for the characters’ slow transformation from selfishness to confidence in a greater purpose, and this is visible and palpable to the audience. Set Designer Douglas Puskas has created an island of education surrounded by a high fence and the audience can’t miss the symbolism. There is also great use of projection surfaces for the presentation to the school board. Sound Designer Daniel McNamara has set the story to a thoughtful mix of jazz and rap.
“Lines in the Dust” asks the question: how can we transcend race and class and create great schools for everyone? Hopefully, we all can work to do that in our own lives.
“Lines in the Dust” runs at 7:00 p.m. Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Monday through June 18, at 6415 Detroit Avenue in the James Levin Theater. For tickets, call (216)631-2727 or visit www.cptonline.org. The play contains pejorative language and adult themes.