Addressing the North American school system’s problematic treatment of troubled youth—specifically young Black men, playwright Dominique Morisseau’s Pipeline, presented by Soulpepper, is both angry and tender. With nuanced characters, insightful allusions and abundant humour, it tells the story of Omari, his divorced parents, and a small community of people impacted by his recent violence.
As Omari, Tony Ofori exudes a suppressed rage. His potential for violence never manifests in front of us, but we can sense it in his gait. There’s immense dignity in every gesture, despite how cagey his interactions feel. When he finally drops his defences, it’s an intimate gift.
Akoshua Amo-Adem is formidable and heartbreaking as his mother, Nya. Her face and body convey the pride, fear and love that binds her to him. Teaching within the fraught public system, she sends Omari to an expensive private school, hoping to shield him from the systemic barriers to success with which she is all too familiar.
The events of the play are set in motion by the news that Omari has lashed out in class. Eager to avoid his mother’s disappointment, he disappears for a time. As Nya processes the choices she has made as a mother, we meet some key people in her life whose anxieties echo her own.
Omari’s girlfriend, Jasmine (Chelsea Russell), rants about their bougie classmates, disdainful of the upper class world they inhabit as outsiders. Russell’s rapid-fire delivery in these scenes is very funny, and her chemistry with Ofori makes their relationship effective enough, but it is in her scene with Amo-Adem where she truly comes into focus.
Desperate to find her son, Nya confronts Jasmine and the long-simmering tension of their relationship comes to the surface. There are veiled threats and appeals to empathy before these women find common ground in their love for Omari. They bring visceral truth to this scene’s striking vignette of generational discord.
There isn’t a single character here who feels like a merely supporting player. Morisseau’s script unpacks discomfiting human complexity which the actors mine with emotional vigour. We see the institutional challenges play-out in the moments Nya has with her co-workers—fellow teacher Laurie (Kristen Thomson) and security guard, Dun (Mazin Elsadig).
Exasperated by the system, Laurie is a powerhouse whose passion for her students has her butting heads with school bureaucrats. Thomson’s demeanour is playful, but even her humour betrays years of steely defiance. She’s an empathetic warrior, directly engaging with the violence she strives to curb.
Elsadig’s Dun paints an affecting portrait of one man’s exhausting struggle to be a dependable cog in a vast, dysfunctional machine. When his affable, cocky armour finally gives way, we see how even the most steadfast reliables can only take so much abuse or neglect.
As Omari’s father, Xavier, Kevin Hanchard conveys warm self-assurance, but we catch glimpses of a deep frustration and guilt. His contribution to Omari’s future has been predominantly monetary and he strives to broaden his influence.
Omari has grown-up imagining his father as the great villain of his life, not understanding the intimate complexities of their failed marriage or having any direct experience his father’s love.
Morisseau’s script taps purposefully into the lasting resonance of two literary works. Nya presents to her class a thematically fertile examination of the contrasting typographical aesthetic of two publications of Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “We Real Cool.” Even more acute is the echo of Bigger Thomas—the young, impoverished protagonist of Richard Right’s “Native Son.”
At first, we regard Omari’s violent outburst as somewhat contemptible. He is exceedingly guarded about the details of this episode. Confronted by his father, he finally lays himself bare. Though there is room for doubt regarding his teacher’s intentions, Omari’s understanding of the situation feels raw and truthful. And his violence deeply relatable.
Director Weyni Mengesha’s production is fluid and evocatively stylish. Actors come together in deliberately precise tableaux yet the emotional authenticity never falters.
A revolving stage rotates the minimal set dressings required to take us from location to location. Defining classroom elements—a blackboard, florescent lights—fly in and out as needed. Present throughout—tall, bleak and oppressive—are an unrelenting set of grey-washed walls. It is here that designer Lorenzo Savoini suggests the institutional power that confines the characters.
Savoini also projects striking images of inner-city students onto the set; filling out the world that Omari and Jasmine inhabit. Through a quietly stirring transition in the play’s finale, these photos bring the play’s themes into sharp relief.
There are moments in Pipeline that hit with awesome force. I left with goosebumps.