On Jan. 14, 1963, Alabama Gov. George Wallace made one of the most indelible speeches in the fight against racial equality ever to be made in the United States.
“In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw a line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say, segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever,” Wallace, a Democrat, said at his inauguration.
While the phrase “segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever” may be the phrase most Americans remember from that speech, it is the phrase “line in the dust,” that inspired playwright Nikkole Salter to write her three-person play examining educational disparities that exist along racial lines today.
“It looks at a lot of issue we’re talking about in public education right now: public versus charter systems, urban versus suburban schools, who gets the resources and how they get the resources,” said Ron Himes, the founder and producing director of the Black Rep, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary season.
Himes hopes this play will challenge audiences to think about how far the United States has come since Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and Brown v. Board of Education (1954) but also to look at the ways segregation still impacts the quality of education students from poorer neighborhoods receive.
“Brown v. Board didn’t change things overnight,” Himes said. “We’ve turned the clock back. Most urban, public schools are black. We’re segregated again. The resources that urban schools had are leaving urban school districts through students choosing to go to charter schools or transferring to go to other districts than the city districts.”
The play follows three characters: a mother, the principal of an elite suburban school and a private investigator. The mother, who lives in an urban area, misses her daughter’s charter school lottery.
She’s left with the option to send her daughter to the school she went to growing up — a school that left her unprepared and unable to get into college without remedial coursework — or to sneak her into a school in a better neighborhood through residency fraud.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about “Lines in the Dust,” is the fact that there are no easy answers. It is hard to judge one character as purely right or wrong. The principal wants to do right by her students. The private investigator wants to do right by the law. The mother wants to do right by her child and will take to lying, cheating and, in some views, stealing to do so.
“I say steal because what happens when a family commits residency fraud, if they are caught, the student is expelled and the family has to pay restitution,” Himes said. “She’s doing the right thing. How will audiences see it? Some will see her doing a bad thing, some will see her doing a good thing. Some will see her doing wrong, some will see her doing right.”
Actor John Contini plays the private investigator charged with tracking down residency fraud cases. He said his role in the play constitutes one of his most challenging experiences. A former teacher of 24 years, he saw similar issues like this all the time.
“I find most of the way he thinks to be totally against what I believe,” Contini said. “Whenever you play with a character you don’t like, I always try to find something in them that I can latch onto, that I can identify with. This one was a tough one.”
While the play takes place in Essex County, New Jersey, an area with vast racial disparities, Himes said it could just as easily take place in St. Louis.
In fact, the play has other St. Louis connections: The playwright, Salter, participated in the “Every 28 Hours” project, which featured 80 one-minute plays in response to the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer. Salter wrote the finale piece, which Himes directed.
Himes hopes the play will give audiences “a chance to sit and ponder” about who is right and who is wrong. While the play itself supplies no answers, that time to think could.
“We have to find an answer to this, we have to think about it, we have to change it, we have to have an answer,” Contini said.
What: The St. Louis Black Repertory Theatre Presents "Lines in the Dust" by Nikkole Salter
When: Jan. 11 - 29, 2017, at various times
Where: Edison Theatre at Washington University, 6465 Forsyth Blvd, St. Louis, MO 63105
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