In mid-March, when New York City abruptly shut its theaters, Coal Country, a documentary drama by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, was another casualty. Under lockdown, Blank and Jensen, best known for The Exonerated, began to interview the city’s frontline healthcare workers. From the interviews, they created a verbatim piece of theater, The Line, which premiered live, via the Public Theater’s website and YouTube channel on Wednesday and will run through 4 August (embedded below). The names of the medical first responders have been changed, their words have not.
The Line – emotive, insistent, just an hour – begins with Oscar (John Ortiz), an ambulance driver who became an EMT, then moves to Sharon (Lorraine Toussaint), a nurse at an assisted living facility and on to Arjun Gupta’s Vikram, an ER doctor, Alison Pill’s Jennifer, a first-year-resident, her face bruised from PPE, and others. Santino Fontana plays David, a former actor who became a nurse and still uses his Stella Adler training at the hospital. “My job is to listen. And respond. To give them power, and become an active responder to their needs,” he says of his patients.
Three nurses, two doctors and two EMTs walk into a live stream. It sounds like a joke. And in a way it is. An extremely dark one: a joke about how the federal government of one of the richest countries in the world mismanaged the early response to the pandemic so spectacularly that it left New York and its healthcare workers to fend without adequate supplies or clear guidelines or sufficient testing. Who’s laughing? The Line centers on the worst weeks of the city’s pandemic.
“First it was one patient, then it was five, then it was 10. And then before you know it the unit was full,” Nicholas Pinnock’s Dwight, a nurse says. Ed (Jamey Sheridan), a paramedic who spent time in Iraq and Afghanistan compares those weeks to war medicine.
Immediate and urgent, The Line bears the marks of a rapid response. The cuts from monologue to monologue are too quick, the video often blurry, the audio prone to glitch. (The backgrounds are depressingly makeshift, Room Rater would despair.) Because of the vagaries of schedule or a remote rehearsal process or the minor celebrity of many of the actors The Line has a strong flavor of “as played by”, though the performances are nuanced, sensitive, generous. And the effort of trying to make a chaotic time coherent makes for some flattening and repletion.
Several of the interviewees express distaste for the word hero and its application to some essential workers and not others. But The Line sees its subjects that way. Veneration that overtakes the complexities of lived experience, particularly at the end, when a newly written Aimee Mann song underscores the action. Yet the piece also argues that they do this work not because they are heroes, but because they are human and caring for others is what humans do.
Who is The Line for? If you are pressing play, chances are you already believe in the pandemic’s severity and are already sympathetic to people who haven’t had the luxury of sheltering in place, who are literally risking their lives to provide healthcare. A viewer who disbelieves – for whatever offensively wrong reasons – are unlikely to be swayed by an hour of documentary theater, assuming they would click a link to it in the first place.
But verbatim speech has its power. And The Line is useful, as well as moving, for the way that it centers individual narrative and makes these first-person accounts a companion and an alternative to our other, more depersonalized, records of the virus – statistics, CDC guidelines, press conference PowerPoints. If you have gone through the illness yourself or know those who have, then there is comfort, too, in seeing your own story reflected, a little blurrily, with feeling and with care.
I watched The Line from my Brooklyn apartment, which sits six blocks from a major hospital. There were weeks this spring when the sirens never stopped. The Line lets me put names and faces (admittedly the wrong names and faces) to the people riding in the back of those ambulances or receiving the patients they disgorged. So The Line, I would like to think, is for all of us who lived through the pandemic this spring and thanks to luck and privilege and the dedication of first responders are still living through it now.