Blank & Jensen Portray Health Workers’ Humanity
by Patricia L. Morin
“The Line” is a heartache to watch. This beautifully crafted docu-drama by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen focuses on individual actors, in a confessional-style frame, who play real-life Covid health workers. Blank and Jensen interviewed seven First Responders working in New York City at the beginning of the pandemic. These heroes put their lives on The Line to save thousands from suffering and death.
A New York Public Theater production, compiled from hundreds of interviews, these workers tell us in turn the roles they played to save lives. Director Blank chooses diverse personalities to represent a variety of responders. They each touch a chord, pulling us into their lives as witnesses of anguish and terror. It’s hard to believe these are actors and not the actual health workers—they are so passionate.
None of them accept being called a hero, deflecting the honor we want to bestow. Each account begins with their personal drive to help humanity.
Warmhearted Sharon (feisty Lorraine Toussaint), a no-nonsense, deeply caring Black supervisor at a nursing home, loves her patients. Sharon boldly refuses to hire nurses who really don’t care! Resilient Sharon is immersed in every aspect of Covid-19, including suffering the disease herself. Through her, we see how grief morphs into perseverance. She returns to the retirement home to be with her “gerries”—an unsung hero to her fearful survivors.
A young Intern, naïve Jennifer (compassionate Allison Pill) walks blindly into the maelstrom of a short-handed New York hospital. She’s new and green but they need her. Pill captures the essence of a new doctor: disheartened and lost, unprepared for Covid patients, and working with scarce medical supplies. As Jennifer weeps over the losses of patients, we feel her growing sorrow. She cannot see herself as a hero.
Vikram (heartwarming Arjun Gupta), a cancer specialist , is suddenly transferred to the Emergency Department—where he willingly shares his experience. Vikram meets the crisis with compassion and reality. As Vikram, Gupta persuasively asserts: “You don’t come to Emergency unless you’re having the worst day of your life.”
The son of Indian immigrants, Dr. Vikram realizes that Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) are dying of COVID far more than Whites. He points out that our “for-profit” health system actually conspires against patients. Vikram sees the big issues under the unexpected crisis.
Four more stirring interviews add heart and hope, through fine acting and timing—as the screen changes from one worker to another in rapid sequence: Oscar (John Ortiz) is the Brooklyn ambulance driver turned Medic. David (Santino Fantana), an ex-actor turned nurse, exhibits the passion of an actor and the caring of a saint. And intense, bearded, married gay father Dwight (Nicholas Pinnock) from Trinidad, speaks wisely and humanely about working under hellish conditions.
Military Ed (Jamey Sheridan), a medic in Vietnam, talks about saving poor people in the Bronx and Queens. Ed rejects the title of “hero,” saying, “We are just doing our jobs.”
But we need them to be our heroes. Yes, they question being called heroes—true heroes usually do because they make split-second decisions. But these health workers’ decisions grow from seeds of caring about people. We need these compassionate heroes who daily ease pain and save lives.
We have few leaders, including our president, who have come through for us in this time of crisis. We need to express our deep appreciation for these underpaid and overworked heroes and martyrs.
“The Line” is a fiery down payment on the Big “Thank You!” we all owe these workers.
A Must See.
“The Line” by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, directed by Jessica Blank—Streaming at: NewYorkPublicTheater
Cast: Santino Fontana, Arjun Gupta, John Ortiz, Alison Pill, Nicholas Pinnock, Jamey Sheridan, and Lorraine Toussaint.
Banner photo: Lorraine Toussaint, Santino Fontana, and John Ortiz. Photo: The Public Theater.