Stage Door Review
Saturday, April 16, 2022
by Dominique Morisseau, directed by Weyni Mengesha
Soulpepper Theatre Company, Yonge Centre, Distillery District, Toronto
April 14-May 8, 2022
Nya: “I’m sinking.... Like I just can’t even fight this pulling down”
Soulpepper’s first in-person show in two years is the Canadian premiere of Pipeline, a confused play from 2017 by American playwright and actor Dominique Morisseau. Morisseau is best known for her trilogy The Detroit Projects (2013-16) and the book for the musical Ain’t Too Proud - The Life and Time of The Temptations (2019). In Pipeline, Morisseau seeks to explore a mother’s anxiety, a son’s anger, and the failings of the American urban public school system. Her project would be more effective if she eliminated contradictions in her plot and gave us more insight into the the play’s major characters.
The action focusses primarily on Nya (Akosua Amo-Adem), a divorced public high school teacher who is struggling to raise her only child, the teenaged Omari (Tony Ofori), on her own. At the start of the play she has just heard the news that he has attacked one of his teachers at the private school he attends and that the school may expel him and lay criminal charges against him. This leads her to have anxiety attacks of increased severity until finally one renders her unconscious and she has to go to hospital.
The majority of the play does not develop these circumstances. We see Omari and then Nya interact with Omari’s girlfriend Jasmine (Chelsea Russell), a female Black student at Omari’s school. We see Nya interact with Laurie (Kristen Thomson), a white teacher and Dun (Mazin Elsadig) a security guard both at Nya’s school. And left until late in the show we see Nya interact with Xavier (Kevin Hanchard), a Black marketing executive, Nya’s ex-husband and father of Omari, who pays for Omari’s education. Of all these scenes the most significant one comes near the very end when Omari and Xavier finally confront each other outside Nya’s hospital room.
What is very frustrating is that by the play’s end the plot has not been resolved. We still don’t know whether the private school will lay charges against Omari. Even in the obvious parallel subplot in which the teacher Laurie is accused of assaulting a student, Morisseau leaves the outcome unknown.
What Morisseau would have us focus on is not Omari but on Nya and the pain that Omari’s action and the school’s reaction will causes her. The private school operates on a typically American three-strikes-you’re-out policy and Omari’s assault of his teacher would be his third strike. Nya thus fears that Omari, despite her best intentions, is headed for the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline” that gives the play its title.
The term “school-to-prison pipeline”, coined early sometime this century, refers to the notion that school discipline policies remove students from learning opportunities and push students out of school via expulsion or school-based arrest into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Zero-tolerance policies and the presence of police in schools as security guards with the power to arrest may have been intended to make schools safer but, in fact, have helped build this pipeline.
Nya has had anxiety attacks before but does not see a doctor because she does want to spend the money (remember this is the US). Thus, as is so common in the US, people receive health care only when an underlying condition causes an emergency.
The poem that Nya is currently teaching does not help her mental situation. It is “We Real Cool” (1960) by Black author Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000). Brooks wondered what Black youths not in school felt about themselves and concluded,
We real cool. We
Left school. We
. . . . . . . . . .
Jazz June. We
(Strangely, enough, in the production neither of the two versions of the poem that Nya shows her class reproduce the original poem where every line except the last ends, not begins, with “We”.) An apparition of Omari appears periodically reciting the poem’s last line which only raises Nya’s anxiety to a higher level.
Morisseau has Omari speak to three people – Jasmine, Nya and Xavier – but only in this last conversation do we learn anything that helps us understand Omari’s character or what caused the assault. Omari refers to the “absent Black father” cliché so often used to explain why young Black men get into trouble. Omari denies this is true. Instead, he says his problems are caused by a father who might have been physically present but was emotionally distant, one who, even now, thinks paying for his son’s education at a private school rather than personal communication is all he needs to do as a father.
This so riles Xavier that he garbs Omari violently by the shoulders and is about to push him into a wall (as Omari supposedly did to his teacher), till he collects himself. Morisseau suggests through this rather obvious parallel that Omari’s anger problems come directly from his father not from aggression in school as the “school-to-prison pipeline” would have it.
Omari tells Xavier that in English class his anger rose when the teacher bagan discussing Richard Wright’s classic novel Native Son (1940), a standard text read in US high schools. In the novel a Black male youth Bigger Thomas, accidentally murders a White girl, Mary Dalton, and, after period of escaping apprehension, is tried and convicted. Omari says that when the teacher asked why Bigger Thomas acted as he did, Omari felt that the teacher kept directing the questions specifically at him, as if he, being Black, as if representing his whole race, would somehow know the answer. Omari says the teacher kept prodding him to the point of harassment until Omari couldn’t stand it any longer. Yet, in his blind rage Omari did not imagine he was striking his teacher but rather his father.
This scene significantly confuses the portrait of the “school-to-prison pipeline” system that Morisseau has painted as fully in place at the school where Nya teaches, the very system that is causing Nya’s anxiety attacks. While Morisseau’s play remains a critique of a broken educational system where metal detectors and security guards are necessary and expected presences, her plot suggests that Omari’s situation really results from an unresolved father-son conflict for which we have been given absolutely no background until this scene late in the action. Worse, Morisseau replaces the “absent Black father” cliché with the “violent Black man” cliché as an explanation for Omari’s actions.
The play brings up innumerable questions that Morisseau never answers. If young Black men are fated to follow the “school-to-prison pipeline”, how is it that Xavier and Dun, the security guard, have managed to escape it. What does it meant that Xavier disses Dun when he meets him? Is it Black men can’t get along or that classism is a further problem within a racial group?
Morisseau gives us some hints as to why Nya and Xavier divorced but not enough to say we understand what happened. Morisseau oddly gives us more insight into Omari’s relationship with his father than he does with his mother, who is the central figure of the play.
As it happens, most of the characters are underdeveloped. All we really know about Nya is that she loves her son so much she would die to save him. But that and anxiety attacks are not enough make a well-rounded character. It is greatly to Akosua Amo-Adem’s credit that she is able to make Nya the riveting figure she is. Amo-Adem, in what is so far her biggest role on stage, finds as many quirks as she can in Nya’s speech and behaviour to fill out the sketch Morisseau has given us. Amo-Adem shows that Nya has a fine sense of self-deprecating humour and that she has dealt with enough student tactics to see through the barrier of bluster that Jasmine builds around herself. Amo-Adem also shows that there is a excessive side to Nya’s love of Omari that naturally feeds into her anxiety.
Tony Ofori does as well as he can to make Omari a compelling figure, but Morisseau wants to save Omari’s big revelation for the cause of his actions until near the end and so gives Omari little of note to do or say until the scene with Xavier. Once that scene arrives, however, and Ofori finally has something to work with, Ofori proves what a fine actor he is. Suddenly, Omari changes from the semi-articulate teen he has been into a forcefully articulate young man who knows exactly who he is and why he is in his present situation.
Though Xavier has little stage time, Kevin Hanchard makes the most of it by showing us what a conflicted man Xavier really is. Morisseau too easily stereotypes Xavier as nouveau riche, but Hanchard uses his actions more than Morisseau’s words to make us see the complicated battle between anger and love, snobbery and earthiness, that rages within his shiny executive suit.
Kristen Thomson is very funny as the foul-mouthed Laurie who has seen everything in all her years teaching at the same school. How, in 2017, she can remember when teachers were allowed to inflict corporal punishment in class is hard to imagine when Morisseau places Laurie only in her 50s. Thomson makes Laurie’s distress when accused of beating a student so palpable we wish Morisseau had given us the conclusion to the story.
Mazin Elsadig is a benign presence as the security guard Dun. Though he is the one who has to deal with violent incidents at the school, Dun, paradoxically, is the calmest person there. He is calm until Laurie accuses him of not doing his job, when Elsadig who has been so charming up till then, forcefully reveals the pressures he is under that the teachers are not.
The character most in the audience will enjoy most is Jasmine, Omari’s sassy, egocentric girlfriend, especially as played by the ebullient Chelsea Russell. The main problem is that Jasmine is not strictly necessary to the action. We learn nothing useful from her in her first appearance except that wishing to cut another girl’s face because Omari looked at the girl is somehow a sign that Jasmine loves him. In her second appearance that Morisseau drags out far too long, Nya comes to ask a simple question and Jasmine obfuscates unnecessarily until giving her the answer. Even then the answer does not further the plot. Luckily, Russell is so exuberant that we welcome her as a break from the general grimness of the story.
Lorenzo Savoini has designed the sets and projections and while the projections are vital in helping us picture what life in US high schools is like today, his set, quite unusually for him, disappoints. The stage is essentially bare and uniformly grey with one door on the edge of a revolve. While the revolve in some ways suggests the circular trap of the “school-to-prison pipeline”, the greyness does not suit Jasmine school bedroom or the hospital which should be bright and white.
Pipeline has the disadvantage of being so clearly directed toward an American audience that it almost feels very much like a foreign play. There’s no question that anti-Nlack racisism exists in Canada. Activists have spoken of a “school-to-prison pipeline” with reference to Black male youth in Canada. But Canada does not have the zero-tolerance policies and the police-in-schools systems so widely prevalent in the US that make support such a pipeline. In 2008, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) did, in collaboration with the Toronto Police Service, implement the euphemistically named School Resource Officer (SRO) Programme by permanently placing armed, uniformed police officers in secondary schools. However, in November 2017 the TDSB voted to eliminate the district's SRO programme. In 2003 the Ontario Human Rights Commission concluded that “A practice of zero tolerance inevitably conflicts with anti-discrimination legislation”. Basically, the OHRC ruled eleven years ago against the very system that is still present in the US and that Morisseau’s play so forcefully indicts.
Ontario theatre-goers have seen an array of rich plays by Black female America playwrights – ntozake shange’s for colored girls (1976) at Soulepper; Suzan Lori-Parks’s Topdog/Underdog (2001) at the Shaw Festival or her Father Comes Home from the Wars (2014) at Soulpepper; Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel (2003) by Obsidian or Sweat (2015) at Canadian Stage; or Jocelyn Bioh’s School Girls (2017) by Nightwood and Obsidian. Morisseau’s Pipeline can’t touch any of these plays either in their depth of allusion or their strength and complexity of storytelling. While it is good to see live theatre at Soulpepper again, one only wishes it could have begun again with a more substantial work.
Photo: Tony Ofori as Omari; Akosua Amo-Adem as Nya; Tony Ofori as Omari and Akosua Amo-Adem as Nya. © 2022 Dahlia Katz.
For tickets visit www.soulpepper.ca.