Review: 'Lines in the Dust's' critique of public education in America is more polemic than play

How much would you be willing to sacrifice to get your child into a school district that would provide the education you yourself were denied because of your ZIP Code? Would you consider giving up custody for the lottery ticket of a first-rate education for your flesh and blood?

This question arises in “Lines in the Dust,” a play by Nikkole Salter, best known for “In the Continuum,” which she wrote and performed with Danai Gurira. But “Lines in the Dust” is less interested in the psychology of a mother who would be open to such a draconian solution than it is in the injustice of a society so economically divided that desperate measures seem completely rational.

“Lines in the Dust” proudly flaunts its social justice agenda. Salter’s approach is comprehensive, intelligently and informatively presenting a complex portrait of a seemingly intractable societal issue. But the play is overwritten, with points of argument often getting the better of dramatic finesse.

The production, a presentation by Collaborative Artists Bloc and Support Black Theatre at the Matrix Theater, stars Kelly Jenrette and Erica Tazel as two Black women in New Jersey who understand only too well how the choice of school can limit or expand a person’s life.

Beverly is the interim principal of the enviably resourced Millburn High School, located in picturesque suburban Millburn. Denitra, a licensed vocational nurse from Newark, commits school residency fraud to get her daughter into this school, not wanting her bright child to follow in her footsteps.

Denitra has nothing to be ashamed of, but she expected more from life. An overachiever in educational environments that were underfunded, she graduated at the top of her class only to discover that she was ill equipped to compete with her more privileged peers in the elite university sweepstakes.

The conceit of this production, directed by Desean K. Terry, is that the two actors alternate roles during the run, thereby mirroring the arbitrary nature of the system. At the reviewed performance, Jenrette played Beverly, the Princeton-educated principal whose professional prospects were changed when she was given the chance to attend a better school than what was allocated for her during her Newark youth. And Tazel took on the role of Denitra, whose guise as a successful corporate attorney to prevent anyone from suspecting that she doesn’t reside in Millburn is soon exposed.

Both actors connect deeply to the predicaments of their characters. Whereas Denitra is a mother willing to go to jail for the sake of her daughter’s future, Beverly is faced with a professional dilemma, with potentially legal consequences, once the truth is revealed about Denitra. She doesn’t want to be complicit in a crime, but how can she turn her back on what she recognizes could so easily be her own story?

A third character is vital to the fray — Michael DiMaggio (Tony Pasqualini), a retired white cop turned private investigator, has been brought in by the school board to weed out students who live outside the district. Michael, a proud Millburn resident who grew up in Newark and is full of racist rancor over what happened to the city after the 1967 riots, takes his job seriously to the point of fanaticism.

Although Beverly is his boss, Michael assumes a menacing power. Pasqualini, digging into the role like it’s a meatball sub, should have been directed to underplay a character that is more dramatically effective when arguing passionately from conservative principles than when popping off with boorish bigotry or making a mess with a piece of pastry.

The staging is simple and effective — an array of screens sets the various scenic backdrops for what amounts to an earnest debate play. Performed without an intermission, “Lines in the Dust” can feel like a PowerPoint presentation in need of streamlining.

What is most haunting about the production is what is the least explicit — Beverly’s internal conflict, grippingly conveyed by Jenrette’s beautifully modulated performance. She empathizes with Denitra’s predicament, but how can she combat a system that made her an exception by the luck of the educational draw?

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