The inner-city school system is a thankless beast. Students who survive it are cause for celebration; those who don’t prompt mere indifference. That’s just how it is in these schools, the system posits: some kids just aren’t meant to graduate.
The “inner-city”-ness of it all becomes even further complicated when that city is predominantly Black. Detroit Public Schools have retained their reputation for squalid conditions. Baltimore City Schools remain a sticking point for elected officials in my hometown — The Wire wasn’t all that far off. Chicago’s school system is messy, too. You’ll note those are all American cities — while Dominique Morisseau’s scorching Pipeline, jam-packed with universal themes on motherhood and culpability, has absolute resonance in Toronto, the American-ness of the play does come through quite clearly. Morriseau’s work, noted for bold descents into urban strife and complicated psychologies, has made frequent appearances on stages across the United States — it’s no surprise we’re seeing that trend carry over to our side of the border. Pipeline’s also currently playing in a Black Theatre Workshop/La Manufacture co-production at Théâtre la Licorne in Montreal, both in English and in French, and here in Toronto we’re anticipating Morisseau’s Detroit over at Coal Mine Theatre later this year.
Underfunded schools, underpaid teachers, underperforming students: the drama comes naturally in Pipeline, playing at Soulpepper and directed commendably by AD Weyni Mengesha. Public school teacher Nya, played in generous layers by Akosua Amo-Adem, is at the edge of a nervous breakdown: her son, Omari (the incandescent Tony Ofori) has been suspended for shoving a teacher at his private school, an institution chosen by Nya ostensibly to keep him out of trouble. Nya’s recently separated from her husband Xavier (an arresting Kevin Hanchard) for what might be surprising reasons — this is no story of a deadbeat dad, and Mengesha skillfully foreshadows a painful reveal. A strained family dynamic and a racist educational system come to a head in a play which borrows equally from naturalist and surrealist tendencies.
Actors playing individuals outside Nya’s family have a tough job here. They’re not onstage all that much, and dramaturgically they tend to feel more like accessories to the Nya clan than people with their own stories to tell. Kristen Thomson plays fellow teacher Laurie, whose microaggressions become macro as she continually loses her professional footing — “bring back corporal punishment!,” she bellows to a stunned Nya in the break room. Thomson plays the unwitting villain well here, and as such her scenes are rather cringe-inducing: teachers like Laurie are pretty clearly what’s wrong with the education system, at least according to Morisseau. Nya’s disgust and astonishment at Laurie’s words mirrored the audience’s on Friday night — those scenes made quite an impact.
Mazin Elsadig as security guard Dun, too, has a challenge; his role is much more important than might be immediately apparent, and yet he doesn’t have too much text to work with as his relationship with Nya becomes clearer and clearer. He’s a likeable presence onstage — I just wish he were there a little more. Chelsea Russell as Omari’s girlfriend, Jasmine, is wonderful: she plies us with comic humour in a play which is definitely not a comedy. Her timing is fantastic, and her scene with Amo-Adem in particular is a standout — if only she had a little more to work with, and that her relationships to Nya and Omari were more fully fleshed out.
Morisseau’s text is a fascinating if inconsistent one, blending poetry and prose together and occasionally finding magic in the gaps between. Pipeline incorporates Gwendolyn Brooks’ chilling poem “We Real Cool” into its storytelling — Nya teaches it to one of her English classes, a class amusingly populated by, uh, us — and the resonance Nya feels between Brooks’ words and her son’s future as a Black man is emotionally debilitating for her as she tries to go about her normal routine. The final line of the poem, an ominous “we die soon,” haunts Nya as the educational system and its power over Omari slips away from her control. Prison’s a real possibility for what he’s done, and the family’s running out of options for clemency.
Mengesha’s helmed a solid production of a play whose dialogue occasionally succumbs to inauthenticity — Morisseau’s text boasts quite a few extended monologues, which when fired away in frequent succession run the risk of creating awkwardness in pacing and relationship-building. Mengesha’s done what she can here — it’s difficult to tell if that occasional awkwardness is intrinsic to the script or if something has become murky in translation from page to stage. But when Amo-Adem and Ofori find their groove, there is simply no stopping them: the pair is magnetic. The mother-son chemistry is so tangible, so raw, and Mengesha’s coaxed a genuine earnestness from a script which doesn’t always seem to provide it easily. Amo-Adem and Ofori both shine when they get to share rapport with a partner onstage: the monologued moments aren’t bad by any means, but when followed by such thoughtfully choreographed, partnered text work, there’s no comparison.
Lorenzo Savoini’s set and projection design is clever and simple: Soulpepper’s got a new (and nearly silent!) revolve, and they’re finally getting to use it. It works aesthetically, and transitions between scenes, complete with moving sets, flying fluorescent light fixtures, and projections of stock images of inner-city schools are compelling moments of drama in themselves. Savoini’s fixed set, too, is populated by small yet effective details which make the public school system feel inescapable and unforgiving: fluorescent lights strobe just enough to emulate a headache-inducing classroom, and electrical wires snake up the wall in rubberized coverings seemingly ripped straight from the Baltimore public schools of my memories. Coupled with Lyon Smith’s sound design, a thoughtful blend of hallway chatter, curated music, and spoken-word poetry which chaotically amalgamates to mimic the sensation of a panic attack, Pipeline’s aural and visual world-building is excellent.
Pipeline is an important play, and despite its overt American-ness, it’s one well worth programming here in Toronto. I interviewed Amo-Adem and Ofori for Intermission a few weeks ago, and it came up that Ofori, a graduate of the Toronto public school system, was a) valedictorian of his graduating class and b) suspended from school on the second-to-last-day of his senior year. The school-to-prison pipeline is a real threat to Black students no matter where in the world they might be and no matter their talents and accomplishments: plays like Pipeline challenge what we’re willing to accept as par for the course, and Soulpepper’s first return to in-person theatre since the pandemic signals an ongoing commitment to keep asking questions, keep turning heads, and keep theatre at a high standard in Toronto’s Distillery District.
Pipeline runs at Soulpepper through May 8. Tickets are available here.