In 2011, Kelly Williams-Bolar served a 10-day jail sentence for illegally sending her children to a suburban school outside of her Akron, Ohio district. The sentence disqualified Williams-Bolar from getting her accreditation as a teacher. A storm of protests, both pro and con, quickly followed the sentence and a later pardon by the governor.
Why did Williams-Bolar feel compelled to get her child out of the ill-performing Akron schools?
As director Beth Woods, whose production of Nikkole Salter’s edifying and upsetting Lines in the Dust is now running at Cleveland Public Theatre, states in her program notes, “Our education system is broken and an entire generation of children has suffered for it.” These students attend Apartheid Schools, “institutions where 99% of the attendees are black or Latino.” “Schools where courses such as Algebra II and chemistry aren’t offered.” Schools where, even if Advanced Placement (AP) classes are presented, most students can’t pass the national tests, so they receive no credit for their class work. Schools where “fewer than 60% of teachers meet all state certification and licensure requirements.”
Wait, this is 2016. Over 60-years ago, the Supreme Court in Brown V. Board of Education, desegregate the schools. But either by neighborhood design, attendance zones, controlled choice programs, poverty patterns, or municipal decree, segregated schools still exist. Cleveland Schools several weeks ago, yes, that’s weeks ago, by court decree, integrated its schools. Cleveland, Tennessee, that is.
But Cleveland, Ohio and such other metropolitan areas as Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, New York and St. Louis also have mainly Apartheid Schools. The results? In Cleveland (Ohio), which remains one of the most segregated cities in the nation, “66% of adults are functionally illiterate (read at or below a 4th grade level). In some neighborhoods the rate is 95%.
Nikkole Salter is on a campaign to educate all of us, not only of the existence, but the financial cost and waste of human potential caused by Apartheid Schools.
She also places a spotlight on people like Michael DiMaggio, one of the lead characters in Lines in the Dust, who believes, as do many Donald Trump followers, that “we need to return to the good old days and make America what it was.” An America dominated by the thinking of Nationalists, who want “America for the Americans,” meaning the white, English speaking population, where women and other minorities know “their place.”
Salter’s fictional play, with factual interludes, starts as we meet Beverly Long, the African American acting-Principal of the upper-class Essex County, Millburn, New Jersey schools, where houses each sell for around one-million dollars. She is attending an open house of a home for sale in the community, where she meets Denitra Morgan, also African American. The two talk about the community, their employment, and what their expectations are for their teen-aged children.
Long is unaware that Denitra is not a lawyer as she claims, does not live in the community, and is scouting out an address to use so that she can district-jump her daughter from the ill-performing inner city school to Millburn.
What follows is a compelling exposé of the politics and operation of the educational system, the opportunity gaps between the “haves” and the “have nots,” the attitudes of people like Mr. DiMaggio, a member of a group who wants to keep their community as is, making sure that blacks, Jews and other “outsiders” don’t’ take away what the “good people of Millburn” have.
Salter writes well. The dialogue is compelling, the ideas crystal clear, the characters well etched. It’s obvious why her 6 full-length plays have been produced on 3 continents and have received numerous awards.
The Cleveland Public Theatre’s production, under the focused direction of Beth Woods, grabs and holds attention. The pacing is pitch perfect. The acting is excellent, the author’s intent and purpose crystal clear.
Nicole Sumlin gives a stellar performance as Denitra, a mother who wants only the best for her daughter, and is willing to do everything, including giving up custody of her child, in order to get her a prime education. Bravo!
Kimberly Sias gives a” humanness” to Principal Long, which makes the production even more frustrating as we watch someone who has nothing but the best of intentions attempt to do an end-run around reality.
Skip Corris inhabits the body of Michael DiMaggio. He is so effective that several “boos” were heard from the audience during the curtain call due to the hateful attitudes of the character.
The chain link fence that surrounds Douglas Puskas’s set, is truly emblematic of the situation in which many people in this country find themselves able to see into what can be, but living a “can’t be part of that” existence.
Daniel McNamara’s musical compositions and sound effects help set the proper moods.
Capsule judgement: If you only see one play this year, it should be Lines in the Dust. Because of its well-crafted writing that clearly develops Nikkole Salter’s fervent thoughts and feelings about Apartheid Schools and the people who make them happen, the play is often excruciating to watch. The truth is painful! The frustration of a problem with no seeming solution, and the possibility of a country operating on a Nationalistic philosophy, become truly scary! As said, if you only see one play this year, it should be Lines in the Dust.
Lines in the Dust runs @ 7 p.m., Thurs/Fri/Sat/Mon in the newly refurbished James Levin Theatre, through June 18, 2016 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit, just east of W. 65th Street. Free parking is available within a two-minute walk from the theatre. For tickets and information call 216-631-2727 or go to www.cptonline.org