'Pipeline' at Studio Theatre – Brilliant, Riveting, Important

Photo by Courtesy of Studio Theatre by C. Stanley Photography
 Justin Weaks and Bjorn DuPaty
Justin Weaks and Bjorn DuPaty

Pipeline is a brilliant play by Dominique Morisseau superbly directed at Studio Theatre by Awoye Timpo.  It is the story about the school to prison pipeline that impacts so many children in high poverty areas but it is so much more than that. 

Andrea Harris Smith (Photo by: Courtesy of Studio Theatre by C. Stanley Photography) Andrea Harris Smith

The play revolves around Nya, a single African American mom who teaches in a high poverty school and is very conflicted about how to bring up her teenage son Omari. She is divorced from his dad and wants to give Omari every opportunity she sees many of her students don’t now and may never have. His dad is paying for the private school and thinks it is better to have Omari in a boarding school than staying in the neighborhood school in which his mom teaches. When Omari ends up in an altercation with one of his teachers which could not only get him kicked out of school but have a long term impact on his future we see her terrified as she tries to understand him, and the rage within him, which led to his fighting with the teacher. She doesn’t know how to help him. 

David Muse, Artistic Director of Studio says "Dominique Morisseau writes from a place of deep understanding and familiarity, both with the subject matter and people at the center of her plays. Though it isn’t set in a specific city, it feels close. There is no doubt that our audiences will see DC reflected to some degree in Pipeline, which will make their reactions to it all the more interesting. It’s a play that brings both clear-eyed analysis about the damage systemic racism does and deep recognition of literature’s power to reflect and transform lives."

According to Morisseau’s biography “for Pipeline she draws on her and her mother’s combined six decades of experience as educators. She was also inspired by Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, an explosive examination of how the American criminal justice system targets Black men, and heavily biased press coverage following the murder of Michael Brown.”

I will never fully understand what Nya, Omari and Xavier (Omari’s father) are feeling or going through. I watched this show from the perspective of how I was born and lived my life; a cis white man of privilege born in Harlem who taught school in Harlem. I never taught a Caucasian student and Omari reminded me of some of the students I taught as a substitute teacher one semester in a Junior High School. As the play ended my first thoughts were I wish I had seen this play before my short teaching career began. Every teacher should see this play because even if you don’t fully understand all of it you will gain a perspective you might not have had before. It will make you a better teacher and maybe a better and more understanding person.

Andrea Harris Smith and Justin Weaks (Photo by: Courtesy of Studio Theatre by C. Stanley Photography) Andrea Harris Smith and Justin Weaks

Andrea Harris Smith as Nya is brilliant and you feel her pain and her love for her son every moment she is on stage. Justin Weaks is riveting portraying the rage Omari feels and he brings a new dimension to his character and to his relationship with his family in every scene. Even in the few scenes he has with his father Xavier (Bjorn DuPaty) you feel his pain as he himself struggles with the rage within him and where to direct it. Pilar Witherspoon is wonderful as Laurie the long-time teacher struggling to do good but not quite sure how in today’s world of education and Ro Boddie as Dun the security guard who also wants to do good by the teachers and students in the school but feels hamstrung by circumstances. It is impossible not to get involved with them as you watch their interactions on stage. Arnulfo Maldonado (set designer) has designed a perfect yet simple set and Jesse Belsky (lightening designer) has complemented each scene with great effects. 

I left the theater after the play thinking I understood a little more about Nya and Omari’s life but quickly realized again I could never fully understand what makes those whose experiences in life are so different from mine tick. I understood a little more about institutional and systemic racism and felt I had a better understanding than ever before about where the rage in an incredibly smart kid like Omari could come from. It was eye opening.  I have spent what I thought of as a lifetime fighting inequality and racism yet walking out of that play realized again how far those fights are from being won.  

No one should miss seeing Pipeline which will be at the Studio Theatre through February 16th.