Kicking off Soulepper’s 25th season is the Canadian premiere of Pipeline by Dominique Morisseau. Directed by Soulpepper’s Artistic Director Weyni Megesha, Pipeline delves into the harsh reality of the School-to-Prison Pipeline through the eyes of a mother’s love and the sacrifices she’s willing to make to ensure her son doesn’t become another statistic.
The set was simple but extremely effective; with just a few static pieces on a revolve and everything else being moveable we’re able to be shown several locations with just a few small changes for each one. I particularly enjoyed how projection was used in the production to show a change in location, but also to show pictures of real students at real schools. It brought the reality of the subject matter to the forefront of the audience’s mind.
The cast of Pipeline gave power-house performances. Akosua Amo-Adem is absolutely riveting. Her presence on stage is so commanding and I could feel her love for her son radiating from every line. Tony Ofori plays Omari, Nyas son, and he was brilliant. He was so clearly torn between who he knows he is and who he thinks everyone expects him to be. An element of the writing which I loved was the clear differences in how Omari speaks at certain times and to certain people. He is constantly walking a line between very elevated speech and more common slang, turning it all on and off to suit his needs. He’s clearly learned this from his parents though, as we watch Nya and Kevin Hanchard’s character Xavier do the same thing when they have their main confrontation. The tension that the word-play created in that scene was immeasurable, and it was absolutely perfectly delivered. I also really enjoyed Chelsea Russell’s performance as Omari’s girlfriend Jasmine. She was so genuine and kind but also allowed the audience into a whole other realm of the private school life and how she still doesn’t feel like she belongs there. Her monologues in particular were hilarious and expertly delivered. Mazin Elsadig and Kristen Thomson make up Nya’s work friends Dun and Laurie respectively. They help cement the troubles faced by teachers and security working at the public schools (particularly in the US). Their understanding of Nya’s situation while also trying to navigate the stresses of working in a public school setting really complete the picture of what Nya is attempting to save her son from.
I enjoyed how Morisseau used “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks as a touchstone throughout the play. Published in 1960, “We Real Cool” has an absolutely haunting final line that is barely even uttered over the course of the play. Nya simply can’t imagine that this will be the fate of her Omari, and when she does, she has a panic attack. I enjoyed how not only was Nya teaching it to her class, but then we hear it read over the PA, see it projected onto the board in Nya’s classroom, even hear Omari recite it in his mother’s mind. But it’s always that final line of “We die soon” that Nya can’t bare to think of. The cadence of that poem and how it’s written have made it one that’s stuck in my mind for years. Pipeline goes back to it at key moments because it exemplifies the kind of life Nya fears the most for her son and yet she knows is such a close reality because of the incident at his school.
This play left me talking and thinking about it for hours afterwards and I loved it. Which really is what a play like Pipeline is meant to do – make us think! After the show my partner and I were talking about how Omari’s rage is cited as the source of his problems at school, and yet it becomes clear that it’s learned behaviour from his father. We watch as Xavier lashes out as soon as he feels that he’s losing control over Omari, so it’s not hard for the audience to imagine that Omari has seen this behaviour before. Yet we’re left with the hope and the knowledge that Omari and Nya are going to be able to work things out on their own, especially with Xavier no longer being in Omari’s life, but we also understand that this is real problem affecting Black teens particularly in North America. I also was musing over the idea that both Omari and Jasmine present throughout the play about fulfilling other people’s expectations of ourselves. What was interesting is that both of them assume that the people around them have certain ideas of them, and that they somehow have to fulfill these assumed expectations. Omari thinks that his teacher thinks that he’s a brutish animal like a character in the novel they’re studying and Jasmine thinks the other girls think she’s just trying to steal their boyfriends. While Jasmine doesn’t fulfill that expectation, Omari lashing out at his teacher does fulfill that assumed expectation. But realizing the difference between these assumed expectations and real ones can only come with age and maturity; discovering oneself enough to understand that defying those assumed expectations is even more important than fulfilling them is something that not many high-schoolers are going to be able to do, even ones as educated as Omari and Jasmine.
Pipeline is absolutely a MUST see from me! It will make you think and feel and look at the world in a different way; all of the amazing things that theatre gives us the space to do. Also if you want more information about the School-to-Prison Pipeline and the work that local organizations have been doing, please visit Soulpepper’s website. Pipeline runs at Soulpepper until May 8. Tickets can be purchased at Pipeline – Preview | Young Centre for the Performing Arts
Photo taken from Soulpepper Theatre – Plays, Concerts & Musicals