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PIPELINE at Ujima shines a brilliant light inside the “School to Prison Pipeline”

THE BASICS: PIPELINE, a one-act play by Dominique Morriseau, presented by Ujima Company, directed by Lorna C. Hill, starring Shanntina Moore, Jerai Kahdim, Mary Moebius, Samantha Cruz, Phil Davis, Sr., and Johnny Rowe, runs through October 13, Thursdays through Saturdays at 7, Sundays at 4 at the new Ujima Theater, 429 Plymouth Ave. (281-0092). Runtime: about 90 minutes without intermission

THUMBNAIL SKETCH: From publisher Samuel French: “Nya, an inner-city public high school teacher, is committed to her students but desperate to give her only son Omari opportunities he’ll otherwise never have. When a controversial incident at his upstate private school threatens to get him expelled, Nya must confront his rage and her own choices as a parent. But will she be able to reach him before a world beyond her control pulls him away?” You can hear a short talk from the play’s Director here.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: All this past week, radio station WBFO has been airing a series on the “School to Prison Pipeline.”

The series (in five segments, each about four minutes long) points out that there is a direct connection between “out of school suspensions” leading to falling behind in classroom work, leading to dropping out of school, leading to incarceration. While the statistics vary according to the studies quoted, most prison inmates are drop-outs, there is a disproportionate percentage of inmates of color (primarily black and Latinx), and there is overwhelming evidence that students of color are disproportionately the victims of punitive school discipline policies. Often white students are given a talking-to and sent back to class, while students of color are suspended. But those statistics are just numbers on a page. So, what’s really going on in high schools, with students, teachers, administrators, parents, all involved in the “School to Prison Pipeline?” Well, that’s what Dominique Morrisseau’s play PIPELINE is showing us. And, as you can imagine, the topic is complicated.

…each of the six characters on stage is complicated too, with a back story, and desires, and motivations.

And each of the six characters on stage is complicated too, with a back story, and desires, and motivations. In the hands of a skilled playwright such as Morriseau, the dramatic tension never lets up, even in the teacher’s break room, where, for several moments, it seems as if the play is going to give us in the audience an emotional break. Hah! That’s where some of the “best” (most dramatic) scenes take place, with especially fine interaction between the two teachers – the close-to-retirement Laurie (Mary Moebius) whose face has been recently slashed by a student and Nya (Shanntina Moore) the mother who carries her own sorrows and frustrations – and the sympathetic security guard Dun (Phil Davis, Sr.). Each of these actors is at the top of his or her game. But so is Morriseau.

“Sympathetic security guard?” In this play, there are no melodramatic “bad guys.” Everybody wants to do the right thing. The question is, what is that?

Those scenes in the teacher’s break room were spot on, and I was reminded of Morriseau’s play SKELETON CREW which takes place entirely in the break room of an auto plant that is about to be shut down. Reviewing that play at The Paul Robeson Theatre (Buffalo’s other main venue for plays by and about African Americans) I wrote: “When I say that this play is ‘running on all eight cylinders’ I mean the fine-tuning is there between the director, the set, sound, and costume designers, and the four actors. There are no weak links and there are no two-dimensional or stereotyped characters. We meet four people living full lives (which we hear about as they talk in the break room) who could be any one of us in the audience.”

Change “four people” to “six” and that paragraph pretty much works for PIPELINE. Morriseau has a gift and while Ujima Artistic Director Lorna C. Hill says that it’s a little too early to be saying that Morriseau could be “the next August Wilson,” nevertheless, it is being said.

Playwrights constantly struggle with two extremes. One is providing so much character development, to make characters seem “real” and “sympathetic” or “identifiable” that the story bogs down or, on the other hand, in order to pick up the pace, providing us with what is known as “two dimensional” or “cartoon characters” which are, in the end, stereotypes. There are no stereotypes in Morriseau plays. The minute you think you “know” a character, you don’t.

The set (Robert J. Ball) and lighting (Nicholas Quinn) work well together, and with different pieces of furniture and props (loved that working microwave) become various rooms and a large, plain, white wall becomes the background on to which are projected images, some still, some moving, of high school hallways and classrooms. The frenetic pace of the images combined with the beats produced by Jeremy Cochise Ball give you that edgy, nervous feeling, not unlike what lead character, Omari (Jerai Khadim), who is about to be expelled, must be feeling.

…everybody in this play is trying to do the right thing, including perhaps the least sympathetic character.

As mentioned, everybody in this play is trying to do the right thing, including perhaps the least sympathetic character, Xavier (Johnny Rowe) who is the absent father of Omari and the object of much of his teenage rage. This is, if I haven’t said it outright, a very “grown-up” play in that we see what’s happening through many different sets of eyes. As I said, everybody wants to do the right thing. The question is, what is that?

Kudos to newcomer Samantha Cruz as the girlfriend, Jazmine, who not only interacts well with her peer, actor Jerai Khadim, but also in a very realistic, confrontational scene with actor Shanntina Moore, who plays Omari’s mother. She talks about her role here.

The description of the 4 rating (out of 5) “Buffalos” begins: “Both the production and the play are of high caliber.” And that’s true. The rating continues, however with the sentence: “If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.” I would change that to: “You may not think the genre/content are up your alley, but because you live in Buffalo in the 21st century, you don’t really have a choice. You must see this play.”

UP NEXT: THE GOSPEL AT COLONUS (April 17 – May 10, 2020) conceived and adapted from the Greek tragedy by Lee Breuer, with music composed by Bob Telson, will be directed by Lorna C. Hill. THE GOSPEL AT COLONUS blends the agony of Greek tragedy and the ecstasy of American gospel music, adapting Sophocles’ play OEDIPUS AT COLONUS to be performed as an oratorio set in a black church. It has garnered multiple awards and nominations, including a nomination for a Pulitzer Prize in 1995.

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For over 20 years, as a producer and program host on WNED Classical (94.5 FM), he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?" These days Peter can be heard regularly on Sunday afternoons from 1 to 5.

On “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?" As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take."

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he was an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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