Pipeline: A Review (Yes, On Closing Day Because It Matters That Much)

Yesterday, Ledcat and I went to the final performance of Pipeline by Dominique Morisseau at City Theatre. Earlier this month, I published a Q&A with local performer Brittney Chantelle about her work with 1 Hood Media Academy composing the soundtrack for this show.

But circumstances kept us from actually seeing the production until today. To my pleasure, 1 Hood Media performed from the soundtrack live after the performance.

Note, you’ll want to bookmark the online version of the playbill that is chock full of information, data, and reflections on the school-to-prison pipeline realities of the play and the people whose actual experiences are reflected in both.

Pipeline follows a few days in the life of Omari, an older Black teen male who is suspended from his prestigious private high school after a physical altercation with a teacher. Omari’s mother, Nya, herself an educator in their neighborhood public high school, struggles with her fears for her son to have a future and her capacity to help him navigate his young adult life as a Black man in the United States.

Omari carries anger over his parent’s divorce, his feelings of abandonment by the father who dutifully does send his support check every month, and his caretaking of his mother who has a predilection to turn to cigarettes and alcohol to help her cope with the stress.  He also serves as an eloquent narrator exploring how we frame the rage of young black men in particular as a self-fulfilling prophecy that dehumanizes them.

We watch Nya grieve and struggle to save her son, begging him for instructions. It is not dependency; Nya is clearly an educated, self-sufficient woman with extensive classroom experience with teens in her urban neighborhood. She’s not ill-prepared to raise her son, but she cannot protect him from his own anger (she tries in a very detailed scene about agreeing to coparent with her ex-husband) and she cannot protect him a world that sees this lanky young man as a threat rather than her beloved child growing into adulthood.

Omari gives his mother some instructions. And the move forward as Nya negotiates with his private school to just expel him without pressing charges, to take responsibility for the role we all play in creating these scenarios, and to give Omari a chance to start fresh in a new school. Nya and Omari do not turn their backs on education (“I was listening to the lesson when I began to really here what (the teacher) meant with his questions” says Omari), but they both know that the privilege of education will not be enough.

I’m sorry that you may have missed this production, but I urge you to stay atuned to City Theatre for other forthcoming plays that promise to be equally impactful.

I was struck by how eloquently Omari howled about his anger, retelling the encounter with his teacher until he finally mined the experience for the underlying source of his anger. He knows that he cannot simply not feel the anger, nor should he.

I was also struck by the insinuations of some characters that single-mother Nya was not prepared to raise her son because she could not understand the Black male experience. But she knew her son. There’s hopefulness in the moments when she asks him what he needs and he (eventually) tells her. She listens to him and they navigate it together.

I think about the themes of this play quite often. We have six niblings, including a young white woman and two Black young men all of whom struggle mightily to manage frustrations and anxieties that other kids seem to navigate a little more easily. They lose their cool easily and we worry for them. What did they experience in those formative pre-adoption months? What traumas do they carry in their genetics and what traumas have they absorbed from their adoptive family histories? Where did all of this anger come from and how on earth will they manage the inevitable repercussions? Are their parents prepared to help them and what, if anything, can we do to support everyone?

It is awful sometimes to know that our law and social work degrees tend to only be helpful when things go terribly wrong. I don’t want to carry that expectation into every interaction with these wonderful young people.

Omari’s instructions filled me with some hope, some sense of what can be helpful. Acknowledging that the anger is deeper than their current circumstances and possibly stems from more is a starting point. Listening.

Side note – Omari was portrayed by CAPA and CMU alumnis Carter Redwood, who is the son of one of my graduate school (social work) professors, Carl Redwood. I did not know about that connection before tonight, but I swear to you – as I was watching Omari talk and gesture, my mind went to Carl in the classroom 18 years ago. Perhaps it is fancifulness on my part, but the power of that legacy of social change running from social work to the performing arts is not something to dismiss.

If you can see Pipeline down the road, please do. In the meantime, listen to the soundtrack.