"Pipeline:" Reflections on Racial Justice in 2021

Published April 14, 2021

Pipeline, by Dominique Morisseau, first opened off-Broadway in 2017. The groundbreaking play tells the story of a Black inner-city public school teacher named Nya and her son Omari. Nya is dedicated to her pupils, but equally determined to give Omari better life opportunities via private schooling. The play follows their story after Omari lashes out at a teacher who pushes him too far.

Nya seeks to help Omari overcome his sense of injustice and anger and to navigate the pitfalls of an imperfect education system while trying to remaining true to her sense of her community’s ideals. The story shines a light on the “school-to-prison pipeline,” a trend which disproportionately affects students in disadvantaged communities, especially Black and Brown communities.

Photo of Tioga Simpson-Worthington.

Tioga Simpson-Worthington

Co-directed by BFA theatre performance students Sydné Jackson and Tioga Simpson-Worthington, Pipeline will be rehearsed and performed entirely virtually by an all-student cast and crew. It is the first play to be presented by Theatre and Dance’s Dreams Affirmed collective, an alliance of students of color from across the Department. It is also a part of the annual Student Directed Series.

The opening conflict in Pipeline is highly charged. “Omari is questioned by a teacher in class and he ends up trying to leave the classroom because he feels uncomfortable,” said Tioga Simpson-Worthington. “The teacher grabs him, and he shoves the teacher. And some students film it so it (becomes very public).”

“Omari’s mother and his father, they don't really know how to appropriately respond. They talk to him and listen, but it's hard for them to see his perspective. They just see this as their kid has assaulted somebody and could be in danger of being arrested or getting in some kind of larger trouble.”

Omari feels he is being tokenized. In class he felt as his the teacher had asked him to speak on behalf of the Black community regarding a passage in Native Son, the 1940 novel by Richard Wright about a Black youth living in a poor area of Chicago. “The teacher was trying to get him to comment on this issue when he was not comfortable speaking for the entire race. And then things escalated.”

Photo of Pipeline cast members.

Members of the "Pipeline" cast.

Sydne Jackson said that Omari’s mother is torn by what’s happened. “You see the conflict within Nya, of being a parent to her son, trying to understand where he's coming from, but also somewhat siding with the teacher and feeling like he (the teacher) does have to push Omari to answer in class.”

As a result of the incident, Nya suggests that Omari might benefit by switching to the public school where she teaches, though it’s less prestigious than the prep school in which he’s enrolled. But Xavier, Omari’s father, is strongly opposed.

“Xavier really wants to give his son a chance at not having to face these normal struggles that a Black man goes through, and I think at times that's a bit misguided,” Simpson-Worthington said. “The attempt to send Omari to the boarding school doesn't really end up making his life any better. It complicates things to be outside of his neighborhood and with people he doesn't relate to very well.” Omari’s reluctance to listen to Xavier is compounded by his parents’s divorce as Nya is the primary caregiver and stable presence in his life.

Jackson feels that growing up in America as a person of color adds another dimension to the inherently challenging experience of being an adolescent. “Definitely we are more aware of our surroundings and how we're portrayed in the world,” she said. “We tiptoe a little more than our White counterparts, which is frustrating at times. I don't think it's a hindrance on teenage adolescence, but it is something that Black and Brown people are aware of growing up that they have to watch out for, on top of school and regular family life, and just existing in general.”

Rehearsal photo of cast on Zoom.

Rehearsal on Zoom.

“I think Black men are forced to grow up very soon, and this play really helps you look at the misunderstanding of the Black man and Black people, and people of color,” she added. “They should have the same rights and benefit of the doubt that a lot of people give their White counterparts.”

Jackson believes the play will “give people a great understanding of what it is to be Black in America… and to grow up as a teenager. It’s going to be eye-opening, hopefully.”

This is the first time that Simpson-Worthington and Jackson have co-directed a theatre piece, though each has headed short pieces, including for the fall 2020 THD Promising Artists Showcase.  “I wanted to direct this play because I started the Dreams Affirmed initiative in the Theatre and Dance Department,” said Jackson.  “And we chose Pipeline because it's a very recent show. “Dreams Affirmed is about having more opportunities for students of color in the department. With the (Black Lives Matter) protests going on, this was a perfect opportunity.”

Character work began at the start rehearsals, from a more personal angle, according to Jackson. “We definitely talked about our own experiences. Although it’s about the pipeline system, the main plot is about family and the mother-son relationship, and a father who's not really in his life. To get into the characters we (talked about this) and how Black men are portrayed in society. You can definitely tell that a lot of the cast members are affected by what they're performing. It means a lot to them and they want to get it right.” The cast and crew also feel close to the characters. “Many of the main roles are teenagers, so the person playing Omari (student Rahim Dunston) is only a year older than the actual character.”

Photo of members of the cast.

Members of the "Pipeline" cast.

Pipeline addresses contemporary issues of racial justice in America.  “I think we’re always making progress,” Jackson said. “Fortunately, a lot of people are more aware of what's going on. It’s been a long time coming. People realize that it is the time for change.”

“But I want to make sure that we have real justice, with the police and medical issues-I mean Black women are treated worse than their White counterparts. And redlining has affected many school districts. We need to put a lot of money and resources into our community, and hopefully that's actually going to happen, instead of just performative things like ‘Nike supports Black people.’”

“I’ve been thinking a lot about this,” Simpson-Worthington added. “Freedom is a constant struggle. Once your people spend a century and a half in slavery it's going to be a long battle to get to a point where you feel like you are equal to everybody else. I think that’s what's different about the civil rights movement now from what it was in the ‘90s, and also the ‘60s.”

Photo of Sydne Jackson.

Sydne Jackson

Jackson concurred. “1619 is when the first slaves came in, and then slavery ended around 1865. We didn't get civil rights until 1965. So for most of American history-three hundred plus years-we've been in a discriminatory state and for only the past sixty-something years have we really been free. So we’re still feeling those effects and generational trauma and trying to change that.”

Scientific research suggests that part of what makes us who we are is “genetic memory,” deep down in the cells, which is passed on to each generation. Jackson said, “I've definitely heard that theory about hundreds of years of trauma affecting a certain community and that definitely can be in our DNA, that trauma. Omari talks about how he can't fully understand where his anger is coming from, and I think that's what scares him the most.”

“He can't find the source, and that’s frustrating and fearful because he doesn't know if it’s going to happen again in the future, even if he gets past this incident. And it weighs heavy on the minds of Omari’s parents.”

“We've had a couple of really wonderful conversations with the actors about that,” Simpson-Worthington agreed. “The angry Black woman, angry Black man stereotype that makes it hard for Black people to express any emotion without being seen as hysterical and crazy. The reality of living with the knowledge of your ancestors’ trauma, whether it's cooked in the DNA or not. From very early on you're told about how you have to behave in the world in order to be respected, and that's not good for the psyche.”

Simpson-Worthington continued, “I there's a great opportunity in this play to look at that and how many people of color live with this anger toward White people, towards people of their own race who they feel aren't doing enough, and towards the systems that oppressed them. It’s painful and hard and it has been inherited. The play is about so many things.”

Each performance of Pipeline will conclude with a special a special post-show conversation featuring the show directors and special guest Shanntina Moore, Board President and company member with Buffalo’s legendary Ujima Theatre. Moore portrayed Nya in the Ujima production of Pipeline and spoke with the cast about the show and digital theatre production during Covid-19. “She gives great advice and says if we ever need to call or text her, she’s always open.”

Performances of Pipeline will take place on April 23 – 24, 2021 @ 7:30pm, and April 25, 2021 @ 2pm & 7:30pm on showtix4.com. To purchase tickets please visit: https://www.showtix4u.com/events/18238  (Then click on the "+" sign next to "Current Events" to reveal the full list of performances to choose from.)

The cast includes Timiyah Love as Nya and Rahim Dunston as Omari, with Kristen Marie Lopez, Campbell McDade Clay, Chris Moriatis, Derrian Brown, Teri-Ann Graham, and Valentina Rodriguez, who doubles as sound designer. The student technical crew includes Aneesah Karam, Ella Lyons, with voiceover mentorship by Kathleen Golde. The technical theatre crew includes Georgi Alphonce and THD alumni Steven Zehler (editing), with design mentorship by Eric Burlingame and Dyan Burlingame.