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review

Tony Ofori in Pipeline.DAHLIA KATZ

  • Title: Pipeline
  • Written by: Dominique Morisseau
  • Director: Weyni Mengesha
  • Actors: Akosua Amo-Adem, Tony Ofori, Kevin Hanchard
  • Company: Soulpepper Theatre Company
  • Venue: Young Centre for the Performing Arts
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: To May 8, 2022
  • COVID-19 measures: Masks and proof of vaccination required

Pipeline has been coming down the pipeline at Soulpepper for a while.

Delayed for a couple years by the pandemic, Dominique Morisseau’s 2017 drama has now properly reopened the Toronto not-for-profit theatre company to live, in-person art in a production full of richly textured performances helmed by artistic director Weyni Mengesha.

Morisseau, a playwright originally from Detroit, has been one of the most produced in the United States in recent years (well, before you-know-what hit). But beyond her script for the jukebox musical Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations, her works have been hardly seen on this side of the Detroit-Windsor tunnel.

Mazin Elsadig and Kristen Thomson in Pipeline.DAHLIA KATZ

When it comes to the renaissance in American playwriting of the past decade, Ontario audiences have mainly been served up the most stylistically audacious or emphatically political shows.

Pipeline is, instead, a quiet, searching drama with pockets of humour; it’s concerned with the systemic racism faced by young Black men in the United States (present in Canadian society, too, of course) but largely zooms in on the anxieties of one individual Black mother.

Nya (Akosua Amo-Adem) is an English teacher at an inner-city public school with security guards and metal detectors in an unnamed American city – and, based on the lesson we see her give on We Real Cool by the African-American poet Gwendolyn Brooks, she is a good one.

Nevertheless, Nya and her well-to-do ex-husband, Xavier (Kevin Hanchard), send their teenage son, Omari (Tony Ofori), to a private boarding school upstate.

Akosua Amo-Adem and Chelsea Russel in Pipeline.DAHLIA KATZ

When we meet her, Nya has just received a call that Omari is in trouble at school. He’s pushed a teacher – shoved? slammed? – into the smartboard and now is not just facing suspension but the possibility that charges will be laid. She struggles with the terror she feels about her son’s future and can’t get the final line of the Brooks poem she teaches (“We die soon”) out of her head.

Morisseau’s attempt to tell an intimate, personal story and also explore the cultural context in which it exists gives the show a kaleidoscopic, journey-like structure.

We observe Nya’s interactions with a series of vividly drawn supporting characters first: Laurie (Kristen Thomson), a white colleague who has refused early retirement after being physically attacked by a student’s family; Dun (Mazin Elsadig, magnetic as ever), a school security guard; and Jasmine (a lively Chelsea Russell), Omari’s boarding-school girlfriend, who also comes from the inner city and is skeptical of her parents‘ attempts to make privilege rub off of her.

Pipeline can feel at times like it’s circling around its plot, an impression reinforced by Mengesha’s use of Soulpepper’s new revolving stage and the spacious design by Lorenzo Savoini. There’s something tentative too about Amo-Adem’s performance at first – and the way the lid is mostly kept on the more lyrical elements in Morisseau’s writing.

But when Nya finally does get to interact with her son in person, and then her ex-husband, the emotion starts to build. Then, at last, Pipeline bursts open – and it clicked for me how Amo-Adem’s performance and the play are deliberately eschewing expectations built up by Hollywood stories about Black moms fighting for their children.

Hanchard, as the dad, and Ofori, as the son, play off each other superbly in the complex multi-faceted scene that is the closest this show comes to confrontation. Ofori is fantastically grounded throughout – an emerging actor to watch, for sure.

Pipeline can feel at times like it’s circling around its plot, an impression reinforced by director Weyni Mengesha’s use of Soulpepper’s new revolving stage and the spacious design by Lorenzo Savoini.DAHLIA KATZ

I ultimately appreciated the way Morisseau‘s play – traditional on the surface – backs away from obvious beats, finds the stakes in the struggle for empathy, and shows how small distances in understanding between family members can be as painful as chasms.

The play’s title is not a reference to anything like Keystone XL, by the way, but what’s referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline. Ontario’s Black Legal Action Centre describes how it operates this way: “Through disciplinary policies and practices, teachers and administrators criminalize children, and push students out of schools, and into direct contact with law enforcement and the criminal justice system.”

Mengesha previously explored the other end of that pipeline with her jaw-dropping production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s prison drama Jesus Hopped The “A” Train in the winter of 2020. That was in her first season of programming as Soulpepper artistic director – quickly cut off because of COVID-19. I’m glad her vision for this theatre is finally getting to flow on.

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