Lines in the Dust

Black Theatre Troupe’s regional premiere tackles inequality in education

Racquel McKenzie as Denitra (left) and Lillie Richardson as Beverly. Photo by Laura Durant.

By Seth Reines, March 2018 Issue

Integration, racial privilege and injustice in our educational system ignite Black Theatre Troupe’s regional premiere of Lines in the Dust, which takes the stage at The Helen Mason Performing Arts Center through Feb. 25.

The production’s creator, Obie Award-winning actress and playwright Nikkole Salter, entered the professional scene with her co-authorship of and co-performance (with Danai Gurira) in the Pulitzer Prize-nominated play In the Continuum (ITC), a work that put a face on the devastating impact of AIDS in Africa and America. As a result, ITC won an OBIE Award, the NY Outer Critics Circle’s Award for Best New American Play and the Global Tolerance Award from the Friends of the United Nations.

Nikkole Salter as Lady McBeth. Photo courtesy of Maryland Theatre Guild.

Today, amid an emerging acting/writing career, Salter serves as the executive director of The Continuum Project, Inc., a nonprofit organization she founded to create innovative artistic programming for community empowerment and enrichment – a mission that’s right inline with Lines in the Dust.

Set in 2010 New Jersey, Lines in the Dust tells the story of Denitra, a working class mother who loses the charter school lottery for her daughter, as she fights to escape their impoverished inner city school and give her daughter the education she deserves.

Set over a half-century after Brown v. The Board of Education, Lines in the Dust questions how far we’ve come and, more importantly, where we go from here.

Salter has written, “We as a nation collectively continue to demonstrate that we believe in our hearts that some people are better than others; some people are inherently more capable than others; some people, based on where they live, are more valuable and more worthy of our investment than others. Nowhere does this make itself more apparent than in our system of public education.”

This made the selection of Lines in the Dust for Black Theatre Troup’s 2017-2018 season easy for artistic director David Hemphill.

“The ongoing dialogue regarding the educational system in the U.S. is continuously in the news,” he said. “We knew that, as we approach the anniversary of the monumental Brown v. Board of Education decision we have to wonder are things really better regarding the education of underserved communities in the country.”

The State of Arizona, Hemphill added, is particularly challenged in terms of its educational system.

“We felt that the questions posed in this show are a reflection of those questions the country is asking regarding education,” he said. “We knew that this could be an important story in the sense that it can initiate an important dialogue.”

Hemphill is confident that this production will spark conversations, adding that the message here is to the entire community.

“The most important statement this play makes is that the efforts to ensure an equally effective education for all groups is still dependent upon all of us remaining vigilant and active in the fight for equality within our school districts and our communities,” he said.

According to Pamela Fields, the production’s director, it is Salter’s prowess as a storyteller that makes her writing so powerful, quoteing the excerpt, “In my opinion education is the most important part of the American Dream … one thing that equalizes opportunity,” as an example.

Racquel McKenzie as Denitra, John Dennis Johnston as Mike. Photo by Laura Durant.

“In Line in the Dust she has used this as the centerpiece of the play’s conflict and created a theatrical discussion of the disparity in education opportunities between the “Haves” and “Have-nots” … and what needs to be both confronted and changed,” Fields explained. “But, she has managed to do this without presenting a lecture on the subject.”

Salter has cleverly set the play in during the Obama presidency, Fields continued, so the action is just enough removed from the present day to offer unspoken comparisons between “then” and “now.”

“… with her passion fully engaged, she has created a world where the political is personal … and vice-versa,” Fields said.

Because she believes that every audience member brings their own experience to fill in the gaps of the character’s experiences, Fields is reluctant to anticipate what this production to say to audience.

“That being said, of course I want the audience to be entertained,” she said. “This play will also provoke thought and discussion about the inequities of educational opportunities in the U.S. We hope our audiences are moved emotionally, too, as we see these vibrant characters struggle with recognizable modern-day issues.

Ultimately, Fields hopes audiences will leave feeling a touch of optimism and with a sense of empowerment as well.

Lines in the Dust
Through Feb. 25
The Helen Mason Performing Arts Center
1333 E. Washington St., Phoenix