What struck me most about Dominque Morriseau’s “Pipeline,” a searing drama, which I saw Friday at the Indiana Repertory Theatre‘s Upperstage, was not only how critically relevant it is, but also how riveting and intensely acted it was. Thoroughly enlightening and a must-see theatrical experience, the production, deftly directed by Raelle Myrick-Hodges, runs through November 11 at the downtown Indianapolis theatre.
“Pipeline,” which is essentially an indictment of this country’s educational system and its negative impact on students and young people of color, in particular, also touches on multiple other issues that include institutional racism, families, classicism, economics and much, much more.
As the daughter of a veteran inner-city public school teacher and a 16-year teacher herself in Detroit and all five boroughs of New York, the award-winning Morriseau, currently one of America’s most produced playwrights, knows from whence she speaks. “Pipeline,” refers to the school-to-prison pipeline, a social construct that exists, especially for young black and Latino men in this country. Set in an unnamed urban city that could even be Indianapolis, the story centers on Omari, a conflicted black teenager. Estranged from his emotionally distant father, Omari’s single mother teaches in a public school that is practically a war zone, so she sends him to an upstate private school to not only ensure he receives the finest education possible, but also protect him from the volatile environment in which they live. While there, he engages in destructive behavior against a teacher that results in consequences that could severely impact his future and his very freedom.
Fast-paced and 90 minutes long sans intermission, “Pipeline” features an impressive cast of primarily out-of-town actors, all of whom excel at their craft and are totally believable in each of their respective roles.
Aime Donna Kelley turned in a potent performance as Nya, a dedicated teacher, fiercely dedicated to caring for her son, who is filled with strength, but ready to come apart at the seams because of the stress she endures both at home and on the job.
Standing out was Cole Taylor as Omari, a bright and sensitive soul, who struggles with inner rage and wrestles with his identity as a private school student from an urban environment, and who faces false perceptions informed by stereotypes and subtle racism.
Also making a strong impression was Renika Williams, playing Omari’s girlfriend Jasmine who, like him, is also from an urban environment and attends the same private school as he does. Intelligent and self-aware, Jasmine projects a streetwise toughness, but is actually quite sensitive on the inside.
Speaking of tough, IRT-regular Constance Macy, the only Caucasian in the cast, plays the no-nonsense, tough-as-nails teacher, Laurie, who is determined to not allow the stress of her job get to her. One of the finest character actors around, Macy really stretches herself in this role, which pays off with a striking performance that is palpable.
Others in the strong cast include Toussaint Jeanlouis, who plays a positive and kind security guard and Andre Garner as Nya’s ineffectual ex-husband Xavier.
During a time when a dangerously toxic political climate has resulted in the normalization of acts of outward racism and hate, the need to keep dialogue open between the races is more important than ever. “Pipeline” offers no solutions to the kaleidoscope of social ills it unveils, but does present universal truths raised by Morrisseau that we can all identify with. What was most encouraging the night I attended was the fact that the majority of the audience was white and for once, a play about a black family and themes of critical importance to African Americans was not just a sermon being preached to the already converted. That alone gave me a lot of hope that when it comes to race relations, change is possible.
For information and tickets or “Pipeline,” call the Indiana Repertory Theatre box office at (317) 635-5252 or go to irtlive.com.