Dominique Morisseau, playwright and 2018 MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” recipient, serves as a conduit between the souls of black folk and the stage. Her most recent play opened at Actors Theatre Thursday night. “Pipeline” is the story of New York City high school teacher Nya (Patrese D. McClain) determined to save her son, Omari (Cecil Blutcher), from the school-to-prison pipeline that threatens to sweep away the potential of our black youth.
Nya knows this threat intimately because her life burdened by the weight of the “Single Black Mother” narrative that tells her what she has to give her son is too little, an ex-husband (JaBen Early) who dispenses blame as consistently as he cuts child support checks — every month right on schedule — and daily she is confronted by the reality she can’t quell the rage and resentment in her students any more than she can extinguish what burns beneath the surface in her own son. She is joined in her battlefield of a high school by former lover and security guard “barely breaking minimum wage,” Dun (Eden Marryshow) and veteran school teacher fresh off leave after reconstructive surgery following an on-the-job knife attack, Laurie (Jessica Wortham).
At the beginning of the play, Omari, who attends an elite boarding school in upstate New York, has been suspended for shoving his teacher and the school is deciding whether or not to press charges. This is his third strike. His instinct is to flee. His girlfriend, Jasmine (Renika Williams), compares him to a lunar eclipse, “Rare and hiding in the shadow of the Earth, always ready for an escape.”
If not the impeccable waves in Dun’s hair, it is Jasmine’s micro-braids, baby hairs and hoop earrings that will have you wondering who styled these characters so fresh-to-death. Costume designer Shilla Benning was also behind the looks of Morisseau’s last production at Actors, “Skeleton Crew,” and has costumed black fashion icons such as Erykah Badu, André 3000 and Taraji P. Henson.
Mid-production, when Omari enters the stage, his hood up on his black hoodie, uttering “We die soon,” the final line of the Gwendolyn Brooks’ 1960 poem, “We Real Cool,” it is impossible not to think of Trayvon Martin. Young Tamir Rice. Mike Brown in his cap and gown. Of their mothers turned activists — Sybrina Fulton, Samaria Rice, Lezley McSpadden. To not see a reflection of these women, their determination, their pain and their regalness, in Nya.
“Pipeline” is a series of reflections, shifting mirrors, looking in the glass and through it. This play is a hard look at a situation with no easy answers. As Dun says, “The source of these fights is older than the bricks in this building.”
The production of “Pipeline” continues through Feb. 2 in the Bingham Theatre at Actors Theatre of Louisville, 316 W. Main St. Tickets are $30.74 to $36.72. For more information, call (502) 584-1205 or visit actorstheatre.org.
Minda Honey is on Twitter @mindahoney and Facebook at “Ask Minda Honey.”