Dominique Morriseau’s Pipeline exposes the nuances of growing up as a black boy in a society that constantly crushes dreams and doubts their self-worth.
The play makes it clear that our educational system not only upholds, but continues to enforce white supremacist ideals.
“Half of these damn kids are suffering from mental illness,” exclaims Laurie (Barbara Douglass) in the school’s lunch room. As a teacher who has been at the high school for many years, Laurie has come to embody the culture of shaming students. By this, I am not only referring to making students feel guilty or not worthy enough in asking for help, but also the dismissing of the traumatization and victimization black and brown students continue to experience in their daily lives. How do we grapple as a society with the historically oppressed, marginalized, and criminalized in schools? The answer to this question requires a far more complex analysis of our educational system as a whole, but what Pipeline points out, is that certain attitudes towards black and brown students—such as that of Laurie’s—do absolutely nothing to push the current educational system.
By turning our attention to Omari (Hubens “Bobby” Cius), a black teenager in the midst of discovering who he is, and his tumultuous relationship with his mother Nya (Alexandra Danielle King), Morriseau sheds light on issues of race, class and gender in schools. In doing so, the playwright illustrates how these socially constructed categories are not only deeply intertwined within every aspect of our lives, but are often the foundations for systems of power and inequality in society. In telling the story of Omari, Morriseau not only reveals the inner workings of inequality and the school-to-prison pipeline, but also dismantles the concept of meritocracy—the preposterous idea that if one works hard enough, one will be successful in life.
But Omari, in spite of trying his best in school, proves that meritocracy only works for those in positions of power and privilege. At school, he often gets into fights and is placed in school detention, and like many students in his situation, Omari continues to struggle socially and academically.
A product of a society that casts a shadow on the potential of black boys, Omari also comes from a broken home. With a loving mother who struggles to keep up with her son’s life, and an absent father who believes that a monthly child support check is all his son needs to survive, Omari fills the void in his life with his girlfriend Jasmine (Sandra Seoane-Seri). In a dynamite performance infused with humor and quick-wit, Jasmine tries to steer Omari in the right direction both socially and academically, but soon realizes her boyfriend’s life circumstances are bigger than him.
The playwright Dominique Morriseau sharply comments on school detention and punishment as the institutional links we know of as the school-to-prison pipeline—an institution that constantly polices and robs black and brown students of their humanity and right to breathe.
Weaving in and out references to Richard Wright’s Native Son, “We Real Cool,” a 1959 poem by Gwendolyn Brooks, and Donny Hathaway’s song “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know,” Morriseau paints a vibrant picture of a teenager struggling to stay afloat in a society that consistently questions his very existence. The vibrancy in the script is articulated in the direction by Dawn M. Simmons. With its ever-changing set that not only situates us inside multiple public and private spaces in and out of school, Simmons also captures the essence of what it means to be a teenager while black.
Pipeline shows us that students like Omari benefit from educators who will engage with them. And to break the complicity of school-to-pipeline, we must as a society, create safe spaces that allow students to challenge stereotypes and preconceived notions of what a black teenager should be. In doing so, we must allow students to craft their own narratives as Omari did in Pipeline.
Pipeline was originally scheduled to run through Sunday, March 29 at the Central Square Theater, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was cancelled. A video stream option for this production was available until April, 12.