by Lynn on April 17, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person by Soulpepper Theatre Company, at The Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, Ont, until May 8. 2022.

Written by Dominique Morisseau

Directed by Weyni Mengesha

Set and projection design by Lorenzo Savoini

Costumes by Ming Wong

Lighting by Kimberly Purtell

Sound design and composer, Lyon Smith

Cast: Akosua Amo-Adem

Mazin Elsadig

Kevin Hanchard

Tony Ofori

Chelsea Russell

Kristen Thomson

From the programme: “The play’s title refers to what has been called the school-to-prison pipeline, the way school discipline can lead young people directly into the criminal justice system, a trajectory that disproportionately affects Black children.  Research conducted by the Toronto district School Board recently revealed that for every suspended White student, there were three suspended Black students.”

A gripping, multi-layered play given a compelling production of a single mother struggling to find a place for her teen-aged son in the education system where he can feel secure and valued. Dominique Morisseau’s play is an indictment of a school system and a society that fails him and other young Black men like him.  

The Story. Nya is a single mother teaching English in a rough inner city high school. Nya and her ex-husband, Xavier, want to ensure their son Omari avoids that “pipeline” by sending him to a private school, thus giving him the best education possible and therefore a better chance to succeed. But something happens one day between Omari and another person and Omari is facing expulsion from the school or worse because of it. The play looks at how each character copes in their own way and the larger issue of the imbalance in expectation, assumption and disregard if one is Black.  

The Production. Director Weyni Mengesha’s sensitive, breathtaking production peels back the many layers of Dominique Morisseau’s bristling play, to reveal its anger, rage and beating heart. Every character has a story and secrets they are hiding and they play them out on Lorenzo Savoini’s spare set of a large blackboard, a table, some chairs etc. that evokes the classroom, staff room in Nya’s school and other locations.

We learn immediately the seriousness of what happened with Omari (Tony Ofori), but the exact details and why are gradually revealed. Dominique Morisseau is such a gifted playwright, leaving clues about character and details as she goes. And Weyni Mengesha, an equally gifted director, keeps her audience leaning forward and hanging on to learn more and ponder each side of the stories.

Nya (Akosua Amo-Adem) is at the heart of the play, its conscience, the conduit through which we see a broken system and the characters in it, some of them broken too, some fiercely prevailing. Akosua Amo-Adem gives a shimmering performance as Nya. Nya handles all the emotions of working in a tough school, negotiating with her ex-husband, Xavier (Kevin Hanchard) over Omari and coping with Omari’s situation, by bottling it all up inside. It’s a measured, nuanced performance of controlled frustration at an unfair system when it comes to Black students.

When dealing with Xavier Nya is almost tentative, cautious about getting too emotional. With Omari she is firm but loving. She knows the world from which she is trying to protect him. She knows how her son is perceived and considered by society and she is careful to support and bolster him. It’s a compelling mesmerizing performance.

Nya is a terrific teacher. When she teaches Gwendolyn Brooks’ iconic poem “We Real Cool” about young, forgotten men who die too early, she uses two versions to engage her students. The first version is from the mainstream press that is laid out ‘traditionally’, formally. And then she shows them a version by a lesser-known press, that depicts the poem as graffiti, a language a teen would be familiar with, and certainly her students. (A pity the students were never allowed to take out their cell phones to actually hear Gwendolyn Brooks recite the poem—the phones were ostensibly confiscated upon entering the school—Brooks gives a fantastic recitation of her poem).

The same compassion Nya shows to her students and son, she shows to her colleagues in the school, but there is integrity as well. Laurie (Kristen Thomson) is a fellow teacher in the school who has just returned from convalescing after she was attached by a student’s angry parents. Laurie is angry at the situation because she feels she has given her life to teaching and another incident suggest she’s not appreciated. But there are cracks in that ideal. Laurie refers to some students as being from the West Indies and Nya quietly, carefully suggests that is not a proper, respectful way to refer them. Laurie glides over the correction without a blip. It’s a subtle bit of business, but so telling. Laurie’s inability to gain her student’s respect and understand their reason for fighting is telling in how she deals with a tense moment in her class.  Nya knows her students’ names and treats them with firm respect. She is fully aware of the world they inhabit and how they are treated. One doubts that Laurie has that same sensitivity. Kristen Thomson as Laurie gives a strong, unsentimental performance, full of frustration and exhaustion.

The other character in the play is Dun (Mazin Elsadig), a harried but compassionate security officer doing his best to keep the peace in an almost untenable situation.

When we do meet Omari it’s at his school, in his girlfriend Jasmine’s (Chelsea Russell) room. In Tony Ofori’s beautifully paced, detailed performance as Omari do we see a young man who is a conscientious student but certainly concerned and anxious at his situation. One gets the sense that Omari and Jasmine are two of the few Black students in the school.  As Jasmine, Chelsea Russell is feisty, clear-eyed and reads the situation better than Omari does. Jasmine is not afraid or cowed by anyone. She gives Omari unconditional love and support. One also senses that Omari’s knows how important it is for him and his parents that he succeed in this school. And again, gradually, we learn what lead Omari to respond physically to being provoked. Only when Omari engages with his father Xavier do we get the full scope of what Omari is dealing with; what we will learn later from Nya is what would be considered ‘inherited rage’.

Xavier is a commanding character, and certainly in Kevin Hanchard’s bold performance. Xavier is a prosperous businessman, always too busy to answer his phone and be contacted quickly by his ex-wife and son. He is a distant father to Omari. Xavier rankles when Omari suggests that. He says with anger, he never missed a support payment or missed sending his son a cheque. That’s not what Omari needs from this man. Dominique Morisseau and certainly Weyni Mengesha and Kevin Hanchard, have us wondering how Xavier avoided the ‘pipeline’ himself. What did he have to do and forego to become this successful and distant from his family. And how close to anger and violence he is himself when Omari challenges him about his lack of emotional support as a father. Complex questions to a complex situation.

Comment. Dominique Morisseau does not offer any clear, easy answers to the on-going issues in her play. But she offers, through the perceptive Nya, how and why the problem prevails. As Nya says when pleading her son’s case, he is judged by how he appears. He is underestimated because of that; discounted, undervalued. The idea is projected through history.  Not said specifically is ‘because he’s Black.’ This stunning production of Pipeline offers lots of painful truths to ponder.

Presented by Soulpepper Theatre Company:

Runs until May 8.

Running time: 1 hour and 40 minutes.

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