With poor, young African-American, Native American, and Latinx students being suspended and expelled from school more frequently than their middle-class white counterparts, often resulting in disenfranchisement and criminalization, it is little wonder that playwrights have been calling for social justice in their theater-making.
Anna Deavere Smith’s trailblazing “Notes From the Field,” which appeared off-Broadway in 2016, offers a collection of open-wound monologues culled from interviews with actual first-responders. They include Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who provides a sobering overview of what is being called the “school-to-prison pipeline,” and Rev. Jamal-Harrison Bryant, who spoke at the 2015 funeral of a young black man who died at the hands of Baltimore police officers.
Dominique Morisseau has taken a different approach with “Pipeline,” which was first seen at New York City’s Lincoln Center in 2017 and is now in production by the Cleveland Play House under Steve H. Broadnax III’s direction. She provides an intense, didactic dramatization of an African-American family on the front line of the crisis, and most of it takes place in a sterile institutional setting designed by Michael Carnahan.
Nya is a dedicated inner-city English teacher who sends her own son, Omari, to a private boarding school financed by her ex-husband, Xavier, in order to protect the young man from the fate of the students she teaches. But Omari is in danger of expulsion after assaulting a teacher who, he believes, singled him out unfairly and provoked him during a discussion of Richard Wright’s “Native Son,” a novel about a black man who descends into violence.
Early in the play we see Nya discussing Gwendolyn Brooks’ short poem “We Real Cool” (“We real cool. We Left school. We Lurk late. We Strike straight. We Sing sin. We Thin gin. We Jazz June. We Die soon.”) with her students. She tells them that the words not only speak to the tragic brotherhood of the streets but their structure and rhythms inform the message.
This is also true of Morisseau’s 100-minute one-act play, which mixes lyricism with sermonizing and street talk with heightened language, and where monologues that address a small piece of the pipeline problem emerge – sometimes organically and sometimes not – from this dialogue.
An articulate and reflective Omari (Kadeem Ali Harris) gives voice to the fear that rage is a young black man’s inheritance. Laurie (Rachel Harker), a frustrated white teacher who has recently been a victim of classroom violence, argues for corporal punishment over Ritalin as the solution. Jasmine (Jade Radford), Omari’s intelligent and loquacious girlfriend, is the poster-child for teenage angst in these troubled times. Dun (Eric Robinson) serves as the spokesperson for every well-intended but woefully outnumbered minimum wage school security guard. And Xavier (Bjorn DuPaty) articulates the dysfunctional dynamics of parenting once-removed.
But it is Nya’s (Suzette Azariah Gunn) moments of soliloquy that are the most poignant, for they represent the unceasing anxiety of every mother of a black teenager in this country. And while her outcries and those of the others can most certainly come across as theatrically heavy-handed – particularly with Curtis Craig’s pulsating music and Katherine Freer’s intense visual projections of classroom chaos filling time between scene segues – the honesty, complexity and emotional vulnerability behind the actors’ enthralling performances keep that at bay.
Gunn’s gut-wrenching performance is particularly moving. If that doesn’t get those on the periphery of the pipeline to listen to these mothers and act in their interest, nothing will. It will certainly get naïve members of a theatergoing audience to better understand a situation that does not make newspaper headlines nearly enough.