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Where to send your child to school is a vexing decision for all parents and caretakers. It intersects with race, class, and housing policy, and each option comes with its own set of downsides. Is it better to take a kid away from a neighborhood school where violence is prevalent and resources are scarce if you can afford tuition at a fancy private school? Will a black student find more success learning from black teachers at a public school, even if they aren’t pushed as hard academically? Will making the wrong choice irrevocably screw up said child’s future?
These questions are woven throughout Dominique Morisseau’s drama Pipeline, but don’t expect to find answers to them in Awoye Timpo’s production at Studio Theatre. The play forces audiences to think about their own educational experiences, education policy as a whole, and the choices they made or were made for them. It’s an exercise we could all stand to do more often.
Nya (Andrea Harris Smith) is a black English teacher at a public high school in the unnamed Mid-Atlantic city where she lives. It’s a hard job and she commiserates in the teachers’ lounge with Laurie (Pilar Witherspoon), a white teacher on the verge of retirement who’s just returned after recovering from an injury that occurred in her classroom, and Dun (Ro Boddie), the black school resource officer assigned to “protect” and “support” the students and staff. Based on what she’s seen professionally, Nya and her ex-husband, Xavier (Bjorn DuPaty), have decided to send their teenage son, Omari (Justin Weaks), to a conservative boarding school out of town. There, they think, he will have opportunities his peers at Nya’s school will not.
That’s not the case. When a frustrated Omari puts his hands on his English teacher, he faces possible expulsion and the fortress Nya has spent years building begins to crumble. She’ll do whatever it takes to solve this problem and keep Omari safe, but she worries that his outbursts will prevent him from succeeding in the future. Smith encapsulates Nya’s fear and worry so specifically that her performance can, at times, be uncomfortable to watch. Projections, designed by Kelly Colburn, contribute to the feeling that the walls of the Mead Theatre are closing in.
Although Pipeline is ostensibly a drama about a serious topic, Morisseau includes moments of levity in the script. (“You are allowed to laugh audibly,” her rules of engagement, tucked into every program, remind audience members.) Omari and his girlfriend, Jasmine (Monica Rae Summers Gonzalez), are typical teens in love, bashful one moment and brazenly declaring their devotion the next. Gonzalez leans hard into the comedy of her scenes and in doing so, makes them among the play’s most memorable.
Of the six actors in the cast, Weaks has the hardest job: He has to convey Omari’s uncertainty, fear, and anger, and make it compelling to a room of mostly white, mostly older patrons. Omari doesn’t know what he wants to do or where he wants to do it—what 16- or 17-year-old does?—and Weaks shows it with the slightest of gestures. He shifts his gaze and wrings his hands when his mother demands answers. He squares his shoulders to make himself seem larger, then folds in on himself in a silent demand to be left alone when his father and Dun attempt to advise and comfort him. Morisseau does not have Omari verbally explain his feelings or thoughts, so it’s up to Weaks to make them known. He does so masterfully.
Pipeline is a play that takes time to process, one whose ideas need to slosh around in your head until they sink in. The actors telling the story know this, and pace their performances accordingly. Although the production runs less than 100 minutes, each scene will get replayed in the days that follow.
To Feb. 23 at 1501 14th St. NW. $60–$90. (202) 332-3300. studiotheatre.org.
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