Pipeline by Dominique Morisseau
Now onstage at Toronto's Soulpepper in the Historic Distillery District
A production of high calibre quality that left me speechless at the conclusion.
To be so heartily welcomed back to Soulpepper after a two-year, too long absence with a production that left me speechless at the conclusion made me realize just how much I have missed this precious gift of live theatre in our lives.
What a smart choice Soulpepper made in staging Dominique Morriseau’s ‘Pipeline’ to invite us back to the theatre.
This top-notch cast led by Artistic Director Weyni Mengesha’s secure visionary direction constructively deals with an issue that, I believe, has eluded the twenty first century educator which Akosua Amo-Adem mentions in her Programme Artist Note: “How can we do better as a city to ensure that all our young Black kids have a chance to reach their potential in the space where they spend the most amount of time?”
This is a question front and centre in my teaching career from 1984- 2017.
Amo-Adem also refers to the title of the play in her Note. To fall down the pipeline means some youths have perhaps made poor educational choices which could tarnish their future. From my professional experience as a 33-year Catholic educator, this is not the goal for any teacher to see young people fail. If young people have made a poor choice, we as teachers, should be able to help students realize there are other alternatives they can choose to succeed and get out of the hole and not dig in deeper.
Teachers are not perfect by any means.
Seeing ‘Pipeline ‘reminded me of this very fact. It engaged a few personal memories in my own mind, (sometimes where I realized I didn’t handle the situation as best as I could) on how I dealt with several black students. More about this in a moment.
Lorenzo Savoini’s Set and Projection Design with Kimberly Purtell’s whispered lighting are visually strong upon entering the auditorium. Hanging centre stage is a long rectangular school black board with a table in front that to me looked like a teacher’s desk. A door stage right is angled to make it appear as if that is the entrance to a classroom. Behind the blackboard is a bed made which ultimately becomes Jasmine’s dorm room. The rotating stage allows for easy movement of set pieces.
Sound Designer and Composer Lyon Smith appropriately selected a song by Yasper for the opening soundtrack: ‘Birds Fly Higher Than the Moon’. The final moment between the central character and her son finely reflects this strongly felt emotional sentiment.
We are introduced to Nya (a knockout performance by Akosua Amo-Adem), a single mother who teaches high school English in an inner-city school. Nya sends her son Omari (Tony Ofori) to a private school because she just knows and understands that opportunities for young black men like him do not exist in the public school system. When Omari becomes involved in a school incident that ultimately threatens to get him expelled, Nya must confront the brimming rage within the young man and the reasons that led him to this point.
As the troubled, young man who tries his best to keep his seething rage under wraps, Tony Ofori offers a subtle and strongly controlled performance of deeply felt emotions. Omari’s girlfriend, Jasmine (Chelsea Russell), instinctively just knows which buttons to push to make Omari either open up completely to her or to close himself off at all costs. What I liked about Russell’s work was the fact she deliberately has chosen not to turn her performance into the typical needy girlfriend who always wants her guy by her. Instead, Jasmine has Omari’s back continually, and Russell beautifully reveals this loyalty especially in her head-to-head confrontation scene with Nya at the school.
We are also introduced to Omari’s father and Nya’s ex husband, Xavier (Kevin Hanchard). Both Hanchard and Ofori have established a credibly natural synchronicity in juxtaposition of their strained father son relationship which kept me on the edge of my seat at one point. I honestly thought a physical fight would have taken place on that stage between the two of them. Believable to watch and to hear these two performers go toe to toe as I got caught up in the passion of the moment.
Playwright Morriseau also weaves a subplot into this main story where she duly makes her opinion of the American public school system duly known. As a retired Catholic school teacher for 33 years, once again I was on every single word uttered about these comments regarding the North American public school education system.
We meet Laurie (Kristen Thomson), a colleague of Nya’s, who remains positive even after she was absent from her work on account of one of her students physically assaulting her. Thomsen says at one point under a most trying of plot circumstances that she has given her life to her work and her students. Thomson’s bang on natural portrayal of an educator who believes she is doing the best she can under one of the most stressful moments in her career made me both empathize and sympathize because all teachers have been there and experienced what Laurie does in the play.
We also meet security guard of the school, Dun (Mazin Elsadig). There appears on the surface a playful chemistry between he and Laurie. She makes a comment to him that possibly might be construed as a tad inappropriate in our woke world today, but what this early introduction work for me was the fact that Thomson and Elsadig are strong actors to establish immediately in their demeanour that context meant everything, and that Dun and Laurie meant nothing in this playful ribbing.
This initial context within their introduction to the audience scene became even more profound for me after Laurie is accused of grave unprofessionalism in her dealing with some students. Elsadig’s delivers a monologue that captivated and riveted my attention to every single word he uttered to Nya and Laurie. A terrific scene at that point.
Now where I realized I didn’t handle the situation with several black students as best as I could. It occurs the first time I hear poet Gwendolyn Brooks’s ‘We Real Cool’ read aloud by Amo-Adem. I remember teaching that poem to my Grade 11 English classes and using the provided Teacher’s Manual for assistance.
The poem’s reiteration throughout the performance underscored it’s an anthem for the voice of young black youth. That I remember teaching to my classes.
However, where I felt I did a disservice was not knowing there are two versions of ‘We Real Cool’. The first (the one I used to teach) was simply written in one stanza form. I had no idea this version was not the one Brooks intended but was used for educational purposes or, as alluded to in ‘Pipeline’, a ‘white’ version of the poem.
There is another form of ‘We Real Cool’ which Brooks did not write in this simple stanza form. Instead, the lines of the poem are placed on the page in an altering format and when the poem is read aloud, the voice of these young black men in the Golden Shovel Pool Hall becomes totally different. We begin the process of listening to the voice of black youth in this latter version.
I truly wished I had known this as I have a new found appreciation of the poem.
Final Comments: A couple of weeks ago, I had seen at Why Not Theatre ‘An IMM-Permanent Resident’ where an audience member at the talk back told the actors that border service agents should see that production.
I’ll buy that and go one step further.
Seeing ‘Pipeline’ and its messages is something all educators should do as well.
Dominique Morisseau’s ‘Pipeline’ becomes that important conduit discussion starter to begin to listen and to hear (and sometimes to back off, as Omari tells his mother) the voice of black youth.
Running Time: approximately 1 hour and 40 minutes with no intermission.
Covid protocols in effect.
‘Pipeline’ runs to May 8 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane in the Marilyn and Charles Baillie Theatre at Toronto’s Historic Distillery District. For tickets, visit youngcentre.ca or call1-416-866-8666. To learn more about Soulpepper, visit www.soulpepper.ca.