Timely and riveting, PIPELINE at Cleveland Play House is a gripping piece of drama that reaches inside the humanity of educational disciplinary policies and exposes the souls of those affected on several sides.
Now playing at the Outcalt Theatre in the Allen Theatre Complex at Playhouse Square through November 3, 2019, this Dominique Morisseau play is well-written, well-directed, well-acted, well-designed, and well worth your 100 minutes.
Directed by Steve H. Broadnax III, the production hurls us into the life of Omari (Kadeem Ali Harris), who begins the play arguing with his girlfriend Jasmine (Jade Radford) about him looking at another girl. It seems like a typical teen squabble until it is also revealed that Omari is nervous about an episode that involved him shoving a teacher in class at their swanky, mostly-white prep school. He feels like the teacher was singling him out during a lesson on Richard Wright’s novel “Native Son.” Why him? Why not pick on any other student?
“I don’t know what I’m gonna be two days from now, or 2 hours…” Omari laments. He wants people to understand him, but he feels trapped. It seems like Jasmine wants more from the relationship, but it appears as if Omari might be too caught up in the pushing incident (which was caught on cell phone video) to consider anything but possibly running away. The thought of jail is terrifying.
Jasmine describes him like a lunar eclipse, “Rare and always hiding in the shadows of the Earth, always ready for escape.” His mother, Nya, describes him as sweet, good, and loving. Jasmine sees these things in him, too. He is a good guy, but has a short fuse.
Over in a public school teachers’ lounge near Omari’s old neighborhood, Laurie (Rachel Harker) has just returned from a 3-week absence sporting a scar on her face. She got it because she was caught in the middle of a classroom fight between her students, and she is mad. She has opinions on everyone, and states “Ritalin can’t fix these kids…” as she openly pops some pills of her own. Nya (Suzette Azariah Gunn) listens as best she can, but she is also dealing with her own feelings about her son Omari’s current predicament. Luckily, security guard Dun (Eric Robinson) provides some levity to the scene, but doesn’t have any answers for the ladies. He can only promise to try to protect the staff as best he can… and flirt a little bit with Nya while doing so.
Omari’s lawyer father Xavier (Bjorn DuPaty) adds to the layers of complexity as he and Nya (his ex-wife) try to navigate the very serious predicament. It’s Omari’s third strike, and this means he not only faces expulsion, but legal charges. As parents, they see their son is in very big trouble. But Xavier finds his interaction with Omari difficult, as Omari gets a support check every month, but rarely gets to see or talk to his father.
The impactful action is a commentary on the school-to-prison pipeline, which funnels student disciplinary issues in school into the world of the criminal justice system. How should teachers deal with unruly students? With verbal outbursts? With physical violence? What structures are in place to help a struggling student stay in school and cope, versus sending him or her into the juvenile justice system? How are families impacted by these decisions? How are minorities affected differently by certain strategies? How can teachers get more support in the classroom?
An effective focus during the show is the use of Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “We Real Cool.” It is projected on the back wall, creeping to life as it is recited throughout, and even explained in a powerful class lesson by Nya. It is referenced over and over during the play, and is a vehicle for several points of action throughout the experience.
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
Author Morisseau states in her program Rules of Engagement, “You are allowed to laugh audibly… My work requires a few “um hmms” and “uhn uhnns” should you need to use them,” and also “This can be a church for some of us, and testifying is allowed.” Morriseau wants a reaction as the actors play, question, discuss, debate and engage with one another.
With all of these questions, the one thing that is never questioned is the humanity of the characters. The people presented are struggling, and they are relatable, likeable, and truthful. The play focuses on relationships, and shows how the bigger system pulls at each person. The production does this by tugging at the heart, not by shoving a message in your face. The characters could be your own family, your friends, your neighbors, or your co-workers.
The designers have put together a modern, moving setting that is based in boxy shapes, and features potent projections. Scenic Designer Michael Carnahan’s set is accented perfectly by Projections Designer Katherine Freer’s stunning imagery. The projections overtake the back wall, which is made of white ceiling tile. Lighting Designer Michal Boll’s lights provide the needed stark mood, while Sound Designer / Composer Curtis Craig’s music underscores the significance of the action. Costume Designer Shilla Benning’s costumes are contemporary and on point for present day action in any city.
Running through November 3, 2019 at the Outcalt Theatre, Cleveland Play House’s PIPELINE is a must-see for anyone who is looking for a thoughtful, interesting piece of theater that isn’t afraid of laughter while tackling a topic that affects so many.
For tickets and more information, visit www.clevelandplayhouse.com, or call 216-241-6000.