Dominique Morisseau Exposes Race, Class Bias in Schools
by Patricia L. Morin
Dominique Morisseau’s “Pipeline”—based on the School-to-Prison Pipeline for students of color—profiles a divorced mom’s struggle with the expectation her son will end up in prison, like so many urban Black teens.
On Lincoln Center’s small stage, Director Lileana Blain-Cruz uses Matt Sanders’ spartan teachers’ lounge to highlight her powerful actors. In Hannah Wasileski’s disquieting video projections of a public high school, we see rough hallways and unsupervised, crowded schoolrooms.
Morisseau focuses on Nya (superb Karen Pittman), a fragile mother and teacher. Nya has sent her confused, angry son, Omari (versatile Namir Smallwood) to a private school because she fears his anger will stream him into the express lane to prison.
After hearing that Omari, in a rage, slammed a teacher into a blackboard for his “third strike,” we see Nya falter. She drinks and smokes, and paces up and down in the teachers’ room in hopes of relieving her anxiety.
In her poetry class, Nya reads aloud Gwendolyn Brooks’ lines: “We real cool. We / Left school. We / . . . Die soon.” Nya’s classroom monologue holds us spellbound, as she slowly slides into a breakdown. She has a vision of Omari repeating, “We / Die soon,” as Donny Hathaway’s solemn song, “Giving Up,” floats softly in the background. Along with her anxiety, we can feel her sadness.
Morisseau’s play is missing the urban language, and her teen characters use sophisticated words to represent street slang. Since we do not see the classroom in action, we miss the actual teacher-student interactions. Through a fellow teacher, regimented but caring Laurie (forceful Tasha Lawrence), we feel the constant struggles to maintain control of a class. Lauri recounts the horrors and frustration of the classroom teacher.
Lauri desperately wants to educate her students, despite having been slashed in the face with a knife. We wonder, why does she stay? How long do teachers survive in these schools? Do they have their own pipeline to failure? Lauri eventually loses her temper, hitting a student with a broom, and faces disciplinary action.
Omari’s girlfriend, perceptive Jasmine (charming Heather Valazquez) is a hot bundle of truth and caring. However, the two teens speak with fully articulated adult sensibilities. In Jasmine’s surprisingly sophisticated monologues, we sense her channeling Morisseau’s voice and opinions. Jasmine exposes the stark class differences, alienated students, and teachers’ prejudices. All problems we see today—still demoralizing our public schools.
And Omari yells to his mother that the white racist teacher goaded him with questions about fatherless African American Bigger Thomas in Native Son. Omari explains, “It was the way he asked those questions!”
When his professional father Xavier (smooth, angry Morocco Omari) offers to take Omari in, and begin anew at another school, the son vehemently rejects his father’s offer. He prefers to stay with Nya in the hood.
We are enmeshed in Nya’s anguish, shocked by her nervous breakdown, and gripped by her raw honesty. We must become more aware of the malicious Pipeline that drains our society of future successes, that grabs children from their schools to be expelled, arrested, and confined in juvenile halls.
In hopes we can break this national nightmare, I recommend the sobering “Pipeline”—a mother’s story.
“Pipeline” by Dominique Morisseau, directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz—Streaming Lincoln Center, New York, until July 24, 2020.
Cast: Karen Pittman, Namir Smallwood, Morocco Omari, Jaime Lincoln, Heather Velazquez, and Tasha Lawrence.
Banner photo: Namir Smallwood & Karen Pittman