Friday night's nearly sold-out audience at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's Octagon Theatre cheered at the conclusion of Dominique Morisseau's powerful Pipeline, a robust and muscular 90-minute exploration of the all too prophetic "school to prison pipeline" facing a disproportionate number of young African-American men.
Produced in partnership with the Equal Justice Initiative, it continues the important conversation about race that EJI's director Bryan Stevenson spurred with the opening a year and a half ago of Montgomery's "Legacy Museum" and "National Memorial for Peace and Justice".
Ms. Morisseau -- a 2018 MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grant" Fellow -- has written a taut and sometimes gut-wrenching drama about public school teacher Nya [Eunice Woods] attempting to do what she thinks is best for her son Omari [Jay Wade] by sending him to a private school where she hopes the environment will shelter him from the violent high school where she teaches.
Good impulses that go horribly wrong when an incident at the new school brought on by a teacher provokes Omari during a class discussion of novelist Richard Wright's Native Son; as the teacher insists that Omari be the spokesman for all Blacks -- and using such trigger words as "tamed", "animal", and "unleashed" -- the young man pushed the teacher out of righteous rage, thereby initiating an investigation and potential jail time for assault.
Early on in the production, Ms. Morisseau introduces poet Gwendolyn Brooks' "We Real Cool", a fatalist jazz influenced rif on the macho chest-beating of African-American youth -- outsiders who are resigned to a dead-end existence beyond their control, but who nonetheless continue their posturing. She punctuates the action with repeated fragments of the poem, so we are never far from the dominant theme of her play. And she seems to be inviting her audiences to engage in the conversation that might lead to an understanding of Omari's plight and end the dehumanizing of Black youth. -- Yes, this is a conversation we should be having.
Director Ron OJ Parson keeps the focus clearly on Nya and Omari as each one tries to navigate their ways through to a satisfactory conclusion -- Nya by not giving in to panic in the search for her son and offer help to him and even asking him to teach her: to help her understand, and Omari by temporarily running away to settle himself before admitting responsibility for his actions. -- Ms. Woods and Mr. Wade develop the complexities of their roles so audiences invest in both their conditions. There may be hope for reconciliation.
They are abetted along the way by Omari's girlfriend Jasmine [Toree Alexandre], Nya's outspoken veteran colleague Laurie [Barbara Figgins], dutiful school security guard Dun [Brian Nelson], and Nya's patriarchal ex-husband Xavier [Ethan Henry], whose estrangement from his son plays a major tole in Omari's acting-out. -- Each one in this excellent ensemble is given at least one moment that both furthers the plot and shows the desperation and fear they bring to dealing with an educational system seemingly rigged against them.
There are no easy solutions to the topics Ms. Morisseau proposes in her well-crafted social commentary. But seeing the emotionally charged ASF production of Pipeline could prompt at least a local willingness to talk with one another and move toward fixing a problem that has been with us for far too long.