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Pipeline ~ Studio Theatre

Jordan Wright
January 9, 2020 

In Dominique Morisseau’s play Pipeline, a direct line is drawn from the consequences resulting from a broken school system to criminal punishment or expulsion for teenagers acting out.  That the system is broken, and kids are warehoused in these ever-larger institutions with no remedies for psychological attention, is well known.  But what are we doing about?  Schools aren’t getting smaller, nor are classrooms, teachers are overwhelmed, and counselors are in short supply – one counselor per 482 students is the national average.  That’s nearly half what is recommended by the National School Counselor Association to address the needs of kids in crisis.  The play is an indictment of the current American school system.

Andrea Harris Smith as Nya and Justin Weaks as Omari in Pipeline. Photo: C. Stanley Photography.

Morisseau’s powerful play presents us with African-American teens in a private school vs. those in a public school.  Given current laws and strict punishment guidelines to address punishment for students as well as teachers, the differences between the two types of schools in handling issues between teachers, students and parents, actually appear to be minimal.  Though Omari’s mother, Nya, teaches in a public school, she and his distant father, Xavier, afford him the advantages of a private school, hoping he will have access to a better education.  But Omari’s personal problems stem from outside the school – divorced parents and a complicated romance with Jasmine, a fellow student.  They are smart kids.  Nevertheless, as teens they are ruled by their emotions and insecurities, and their reactions are often wrong-headed and impulsive.

Pilar Witherspoon as Laurie and Andrea Harris Smith as Nya in Pipeline. Photo: C. Stanley Photography.

Omari’s rage quickly gets the better of him when he is confronted by a teacher who expects his participation at a time when the teen is feeling vulnerable.  His reckless response is to shove the teacher against the wall.  Classmates record the incident with their cell phones and the incident goes viral.  Does the teacher have a responsibility to deal with a troubled teen in an overcrowded classroom or intuit his personal crisis?  Probably, not.  But in consoling her child, Omari’s mother reminds him he is in school to learn and obey his teacher.

Justin Weaks as Omari and Monica Rae Summers Gonzalez as Jasmine in Pipeline. Photo: C. Stanley Photography

Nya’s colleague and veteran teacher, Laurie, has struggles of her own.  Unable to reach Dun, the school’s security guard, who’s off dealing with another crisis, she tries breaking up a vicious fight in her classroom with a broomstick.  She too, becomes at risk of expulsion.

Justin Weaks as Omari and Bjorn DuPaty as Xavier in Pipeline. Photo: C. Stanley Photography

The framework for the play draws on Richard Wright’s “Native Son” and the character Bigger Thomas who became a murderer due to his inability to control his rage.  Additionally, video projections of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem, “We Real Cool”, in which young African American students skip school to go down a deadly path, are displayed onto the stage walls in a haunting forewarning of a fate that all fear could become Omari’s.

Andrea Harris Smith as Nya in Pipeline; background: live projection of Justin Weaks as Omari. Photo: C. Stanley Photography

As a former high school teacher in DC, Artistic Director David Muse notes, “Maybe most striking and recognizable to me about Pipeline is Dominique’s [Morisseau’s] treatment of the fatalism that takes hold of urban educators and parents as they struggle daily to deal with systems that seemed stacked against the young people in their charge.”

A powerful and haunting drama performed by an excellent cast.

Starring Andrea Harris Smith as Nya; Justin Weaks as Omari; Monica Rae Summers Gonzalez as Jasmine; Bjorn DuPaty as Xavier; Pilar Witherspoon as Laurie; and Ro Boddie as Dun.

Directed by Awoye Timpo; Set Design by Arnulfo Maldonado; Lighting Design by Jesse Belsky; Sound Design by Fan Zhang; Projection Design by Alexandra Kelly Colburn; Dramaturg Lauren Halvorsen.

Through February 16th at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th Street, NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information visit or call 202.332.3300.

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