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Commentary: How a Black and brown cast reflects the real human dimensions of COVID-19

Lorraine Toussaint, Santino Fontana, John Ortiz appear onscreen in the livestreamed world premiere of the play "The Line."
Lorraine Toussaint, left, Santino Fontana and John Ortiz in the livestreamed world premiere of “The Line,” written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen and presented by the Public Theater.
(The Public Theater)

“The Line,” the new live-streamed documentary play by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen presented by the Public Theater, follows a format that will be familiar to viewers of the evening news. The drama, a series of talking head monologues, offers a cross-section of first-hand accounts of New York City’s first responders during the coronavirus crisis.

The characters are nurses, doctors, a manager of a nursing home, a veteran paramedic and an ambulance driver turned emergency medical technician. Their reports of overrun hospital wards, emergency intubations, PPE shortfalls, fears of contagion, and the rapid succession of lonely deaths have been circulating since the disease first exploded in Wuhan, China.

For the record:

4:26 PM, Jul. 12, 2020In a previous version of this story, the main photo caption did not include Lorraine Toussaint and misidentified Santino Fontana.

Blank and Jensen are best known for their anti-death-penalty play “The Exonerated,” which relates the true sagas of wrongly convicted death row inmates who were later exonerated. “The Line” (which will be live-streamed through Aug. 4) follows a similar procedure in trusting individual testimonies to paint a larger portrait of social injustice — in this case, the disproportionate number of Black and brown people who have fallen ill and died from COVID-19.

Dramatic criticism of the play’s tendency to lionize its characters, to treat them as inspirational heroes rather than as ordinary first responders who, regardless of their commitment or competency, were thrust headlong into a public health nightmare demanding their service, is beside the point. As the pandemic burns through the country, no one can have any distance from the material. The only appropriate response to these stories is tearful gratitude.

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But “The Line,” which was directed by Blank, achieves a power through its casting that augments and strengthens the drama. Obviously, the real-life individuals from which this work was derived are representative of the diversity of New York, but to see these characters and experiences embodied by such an inclusive group of actors endows the production with a deeper reality.

The case for diversity in casting is often made on abstract ethical grounds, a matter of equal opportunity, democratic fairness, etc. “The Line” makes an artistic case: The more viewpoints and backgrounds invited in, the more accurate and complete the human picture.

The more devastating, too.

John Ortiz, an indispensable talent, plays Oscar, the Latino ambulance driver who became an EMT because he couldn’t stand being unable to directly help the patients he was transporting. Lorraine Toussaint portrays Sharon, a Black nurse who manages a facility for elderly residents that she looks after as though they were her own relatives.

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Lorraine Toussaint in "The Line."
(The Public Theater)

Blank and Jensen provide just enough personal information about these characters to give us a sense of Oscar’s rough and tumble background and Sharon’s bustling home life. Oscar’s sense of professional purpose becomes more meaningful as a result, and we understand Sharon’s fears of exposing her loved ones to this virus when she returns from work.

There are two characters who happen to be gay: Vikram (played by Arjun Gupta) is a doctor of Indian background and Dwight (played by Nicholas Pinnock) is a nurse originally from Trinidad who works at a cancer hospital. Both bring up their male partners as aspects of their lives requiring no explanation. No justification is needed either for including two gay men in a seven-character play, even if the demographic unpredictability of this theatrical world is still somewhat unusual in the American theater.

Alison Pill in "The Line."
(The Public Theater )
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The three white characters extend the range. Alison Pill’s Jennifer is a first-year medical intern at a busy Brooklyn hospital who was inspired to become a doctor by her Czech family’s harrowing run-ins with 20th century history. Santino Fontana’s David is an intensive care nurse with a thick Long Island accent who relates caring for patients to his passion for acting. Jamey Sheridan’s Ed, a paramedic who has brought his training to danger zones around the world, has a gruff outer-borough exterior and a steely determination to help where he can.

I’ve heard versions of their stories before, but I felt them acutely while watching this hourlong drama on my laptop. The actors convey the true subject of their play — the way the coronavirus crisis has simultaneously revealed our interrelatedness and brutally exposed our societal rifts and inequities — through the specificity of their flesh and blood presences.

Vikram articulates the play’s moral in a speech that has an almost summing-up quality:

All of us were afraid, right? Everyone. But that shared vulnerability, that shared fear, is something that certain communities could escape. They could work remotely, they could quarantine, they could go upstate or to the Hamptons or wherever. I can’t tell you the last time a white person has delivered a GrubHub or a Seamless to my door. Through this whole thing, our economy has been on the backs of the Black and brown people who couldn’t escape that vulnerability.

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These words sting with truth, but it’s the human spectrum before us that turns sociological observation into gasping emotion.

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Jackie Sibblies Drury and Jeremy O. Harris lead a new era of theater demanding that audiences confront the truths in front of them.


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