If you didn’t get to see the premiere of Pipeline at Lincoln Center Theater’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater in 2017, don’t fret. This critically acclaimed play can be seen on Friday, February 8 on PBS at 9pm EST. The production may not have all the frills one might expect to see on Broadway, but the content is indisputable.
It is our responsibility to tell our stories. Specifically. Artfully. And in Truth. That’s exactly what happens in Dominique Morisseau’s play, Pipeline. As an educator, writer, actor, activist, playwright, and poet, she combines all of her talents in this script. Dominique holds no punches when telling the story of a quasi-single parent and her struggle to raise her African-American son, in a world that isn’t systematically designed for him to succeed in. Although we may have heard or seen versions of this story told before, Dominique’s use of prose and schematic language add a soulful layer to the story. She uses two highly regarded pieces of work throughout the play to help tell her story; “Native Son” by Richard Wright and the iconic poem “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks.
“I want instructions. I would take a bullet for you. I would suffocate the sun for you. I would steal the sky for you. I would blind Moses for you. Before you die or rot or lose your freedom, I would surrender my own. You know that? I would die if you could be born again without this oppressive rage. I don’t know what to do. I need you to tell me. Tell me how to save you. Tell me how to give you another life. Tell me what would take this failure away. ‘Cause I listen to everybody else, I’m ready to listen to you. Guide me, give me the answer, give it to me, I will do it, I swear.”
That is Nya (Karen Pittman), a mother’s heart-rending plea to her son so she can save him. Save him from the world, the system, her ambiguous parental choices. Nya, who is an inner-city public school teacher, has sent her son, Omari (Namir Smallwood) to a private school upstate, where she thought he’d be safe from society and get a good education. The place which she deems safe, turns into a personal reminder of the things Omari is lacking in his life, one being a personal relationship with his father, Xavier (Morocco Omari). A controversial incident at school, which is filmed by the students, threatens his future. As a young, black teenager, his future is in the hands of how society views him.
She heralds Pipeline as one of the most important plays she’s ever written. Her influence for the play came from many angles. In the CNN documentary, “Chicagoland”, a principal talked about her struggle to do what was in the best interest of her students, to ensure they were not on the school to prison pipeline track. As an educator in the NYC Public School and Private School systems, as well as in Detroit, Dominique could directly relate to the issues faced by the principal. Her other guiding light was Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, which examines mass incarceration. “Those two forces were very compelling to me in terms of wanting to look at the education system. I was pushed to explore the school to prison pipeline because I believe segregation in education is the new Jim Crow Part 2. The disparity between public education and private education and charter schools is very wide. There’s a huge disparity and it disturbs me. As I started working on the piece, it wasn’t just about Chicago, New York, or Detroit, I realized this is a nationwide epidemic.” This is a powerful statement to make and her play speaks for itself, in the way that it challenges you to think.
We see this perspective in the play as we watch Laurie (Tasha Lawrence), skillfully navigate her way around a school she has taught at for over 15 years. She returns to school after medical leave due to a brawl in her classroom which left her with stitches near her right eye. As dedicated as she has been, Laurie, yet again encounters an ambiguous dilemma. Follow protocol and call the school’s security team and wait for them to arrive, or save a student whose head is being bashed into the floor by another student. Laurie chooses life, but it might be the death of her career. Does it even matter that she’s a white female in an urban school setting?
The other nuanced segment of the play is the structures in which schools can fail young people and the one in which we deem to be most detrimental. There’s the infrastructural failure (public school) versus cultural failure (private school). “We forgot that they are total human beings we are raising. With cultural failure you can make a child feel entrapped and compartmentalized in a lot of ways. That can do a lot of damage.”
The cultural failure that Dominique addresses in this play, is the lack of a physical presence of a father in Omari’s life. Although every child support check arrives on time, Omari struggles with his absentee father and the hollowness it leaves him with. As Dominique writes “Don’t lock away the hopes he can become. This rage is not his sin, it was never his sin. It’s his inheritance.”
Pipeline is written by a “Detroit girl with a Brooklyn undertone and LA highlights”. She’s the recipient of the 2018 MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant”, Honoree for the Jane Chambers Playwriting Award, a two time winner of the NAACP Image Award, an OBIE Award recipient, owner of a Steinberg Playwright Award and a NBFT August Wilson Playwriting Award and a list of other accolades. Dominique is no stranger to the writer’s world. She was the co-producer on Showtime’s “Shameless” and authored the book for Ain’t Too Proud, the Broadway musical about The Temptations, which opens on March 21st.