COVID First Responders Bare Their Pain in The Line

Lorraine Toussaint, Santino Fontana, and John Ortiz in the livestreamed world premiere of The Line.
Lorraine Toussaint, Santino Fontana, and John Ortiz in the livestreamed world premiere of The Line. Photo by The Public Theater.
A show comprised of real-life interviews with COVID first responders while we’re still in the middle of a global pandemic. Sounds like theatrical redundancy. After all, aren’t we already taken into the belly of the emergency response beast via the embedded journalists, personal essays, and social media videos that document the daily horrors our healthcare workers face?

In lesser hands, the answer would be yes.

But give the task to verbatim theater experts, Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen in their new online show, The Line, commissioned by The Public Theater, and you get not simply tragedy regurgitation, but something deeper. Something more nuanced, fragile, and affecting than we've been consuming in our alarming and urgent news feeds.

We get the less sensational indignities of fighting COVID. The thousand small cuts. The punch that may not knock you out but bruises dark in lingering reminder. This is a show that gives us the fault lines we miss while looking at the bigger sinkhole.

Taken from interviews with New York City medical first responders battling COVID, The Line presents us with seven characters in rotating monologue, none of them composites but all of them name changes, describing their efforts in the struggle to keep the virus at bay. Seven compelling characters given tender consideration by this stellar cast.

There’s actor turned ER Nurse David (Santino Fontana), ER Doctor Vikram (Arjun Gupta) Ambulance Driver Oscar (John Ortiz) First Year Intern Jennifer (Alison Pill), Cancer Hospital Nurse, Dwight (Nicholas Pinnock), Paramedic Ed (Jamey Sheridan) and Senior Centre Manager Sharon (Lorraine Toussaint).

These are medical workers of different ages, races, sexes, sexual preferences, and countries of birth. A perfect snapshot of the rainbow of heroes we Americans are relying on to keep us alive during this pandemic.

Only don’t call them heroes. “Now we’re heroes,” snarls David near the end of the 60-minute show. “What the fuck do you think we were doing before all of this? All of a sudden, because we can die, now we’re heroes?”
This, just one of the many moments of exasperation verging on anger that gushes in like bile puddles during these wartime-like testimonials.

With his open face that smiles as easily as it shows pain, Oscar details the 30-45 minutes he normally gets to restart a heart when called to a scene. This is a man proud of his job, proud of his service. But watch him break piece by piece as he details how COVID compromises his work. “During this COVID they gave us a 20-minute window. 20 minutes and that’s it. And New York we are known to go the extra mile to try to bring somebody back. We do everything we can, we give them the full workup. But they were like "you can't do nothing more?" and “we can’t do nothing more, we were told 20 minutes.”

Of course, there are the stories you expect. Not enough PPE, running out of beds, healthcare workers getting sick. Losing patients. Nonexistent funerals. None of it played for tears. All of it causing weeping nonetheless. Blank, who also directs the show, cleverly allows just enough space between monologues to let the gravity of the emotion set in, the camera lingering for just a beat on the character as they stare at us on our screens.

But then a story hits us that we didn’t expect. Rousing us from our tears in fresh upset. Embarrassed that in the midst of all the chaos, we maybe didn’t take enough time to be upset at these things too.

Emotional support offered to medical workers too little too late. Long after the trauma has set up permanent residence. Deliveries of food made by exclusively black and brown people, performing these jobs despite their high-risk status. Keeping our medical workers fed and our economy going. Not being able to properly inform families of the death of a loved one because every minute means more COVID patients piling up.

It’s a difficult watch.

But it’s also quite beautiful in its necessity. These are the people we’ve trusted with our lives and they deserve to be heard. To take off the gowns and the gloves and be human. We owe them our ability to witness their pain. To truly participate in the reality that we’re all in this together.

It’s the least we can do.

The Line is available on-demand for free through August 4 at The Public Theater YouTube Channel.
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Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman