Lines in the Dust Review – Is There Equality in Education?

Kelly Jenrette, Tony Pasqualini, and Erica Tazel in LINES IN THE DUST - Photo by Matthew Law
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A tale based on true events and real lives, LINES IN THE DUST makes its West Coast premiere at the Matrix Theatre in Los Angeles in 2023. First produced in 2014 in Jersey City, New Jersey, playwright Nikkole Salter’s engrossing and gritty story about education – and the lack of education – can have a very personal domino effect on each person’s future. Originally commissioned by Luna Stage to commemorate the anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954 and now, over a half-century later, LINES IN THE DUST examines how far we’ve come – and how far we have to go. It is prophetic that former four-term Governor of Alabama George Wallace provided the play’s title: “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 (1963).”

Erica Tazel and Kelly Jenrette – Photo by Matthew Law

Clearly, it is not a mistake that author Salter chose to set the controversial piece in a school: “I chose the lens of school residency fraud because I thought that it was a circumstance that allowed for the discussion to happen on a personal home base level, but also on a political level.” LINES IN THE DUST explores the issue of separate and unequal schooling, a contemporary narrative about the injustices of a public school system, where the quality of children’s education can depend solely on a street address.

Kelly Jenrette and Tony Pasqualini – Photo by Matthew Law

The time is 2009/2010 and the place is Millburn Township in New Jersey. Dr. Beverly Long (Kelly Jenrett) is the high school principal in a district renowned for its excellent educational offerings. But her tenure becomes tenuous when the School Board decides to send in private investigator Michael DiMaggio (Tony Pasqualini) to ferret out students who are using fake addresses in order to attend schools in this esteemed district – and then plans to expel them back to their neighborhood schools, which are typically almost criminally weak academically. When Principal Beverly coincidentally meets Denitra Morgan (Erica Tazel) at an open house in Millburn, the two women strike up a conversation which turns into the beginnings of a friendship. It seems that Denitra’s daughter attends Beverly’s high school. After a rocky start, the teen is now doing above average work. But an impassioned Tony soon discovers that Denitra’s daughter has been using a false address and brings the information to Beverly for possible expulsion. Thus the ball begins to roll, quickly followed by serious ethical, moral, and legal dilemmas.

Kelly Jenrette and Erica Tazel – Photo by Matthew Law

Director Desean K. Terry helms the play with a sure hand, ably assisted by an excellent cast headed by Kelley Jenrett and Erica Tazel – who will switch roles back and forth (Beverly and Denitra) during the course of the show’s run. DiMaggio cunningly sneaks in as the man you love to hate. The production team also does an excellent job of creating just the right environment. Mark Mendelson’s scenic design is effective; Wendell C. Carmichael’s costumes strike just the right note; Derrick McDaniel’s lighting and Alexis Tongue’s sound add dimensions to the piece.

Kelly Jenrette and Erica Tazel – Photo by Matthew Law

LINES IN THE DUST is presented by the Collaborative Artist Bloc and Support Black Theatre; and is, in fact, the very first production of this new group. This reviewer can only add, “What an inauguration!” LINES IN THE DUST is a thought-provoking, gripping piece of theater which will appeal to all audiences and is an outstanding example of inclusiveness. It takes a broad intellectual concept and poignantly transforms it into a personal, intimate, and touching story.

At the After Party – Tony Pasqualini, Kelly Jenrette, Desean K. Terry, and Erica Tazel – Photo by Elaine L. Mura

LINES IN THE DUST runs through December 10, 2023, with performances at 8 p.m. on Thursdays, at 8:30 p.m. on Fridays, at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturdays, and at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Sundays. The Matrix Theatre is located at 7657 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90046. Tickets are $55 (discounts available for students, seniors, and groups). For information and reservations, go online.


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