By Micha Green
AFRO D.C. Editor
Art is said to imitate life, and in Studio Theatre’s production of Dominique Morriseau’s Pipeline, directed by Awoye Timpo, audiences receive a major wake-up-call regarding the dire need for disciplinary reform in the American education system- particularly as it relates to Black students. Audiences learn schools need to stop disciplining (as they are) and start listening to their pupils.
“We have to listen to our young people, more than we are,” said Pipeline actor Justin Weaks.
The ACLU describes the school-to-prison pipeline as a “disturbing trend wherein children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.” While Black students only make up for 16 percent of pupils enrolled in public schools, in comparison to 51 percent of White children, they are, disproportionately criminalized in educational environments, and are the largest victims of the school-to-prison pipeline.
The statistics are jarring. Thirty-one percent of White students have had multiple school suspensions in comparison to 52 percent of Black children. Black students make up for 31 percent of school-related arrests and are three times more likely to be suspended and expelled from school, according to the ACLU. To further cement this pipeline, the ACLU reported that students who are suspended are three times more likely to be in contact with the juvenile justice system in the following year.
Pipeline is a play about how a family traverses life once their son Omari Joseph gets in trouble after a school fight, and how they cope with uncertainties while his future hangs in the balance.
“Omari represents so many young men in schools, public and private, who are trying to navigate their emotions at a moment in our nation when they have a lot of social vulnerability and fragility,” Morisseau said, according to the dramaturgical notes found in Studio’s Pipeline playbill.
In an exclusive with the AFRO, Weaks, who plays Omari, shared how the play pushes him as an artist, serves as a form of arts advocacy and is a story by a Black woman, for Black people.
“I think it’s for [Black people]. I think it’s specifically for younger Black, men and women,” he said. “Dominique writes the Black experience for Black and Brown people, but….still holds her White audiences accountable,” Weaks added.
This millennial, Black reporter sat in a theatre filled with faces that presented as White baby boomers, and as an educator who has worked in District of Columbia Public Schools, this play hits home. Pipeline is downright amazing, the acting is sincere and stirring, and quite honestly, all racial and ethnic groups should see this play. However, this play is clearly written for Black people and for this reporter who sees a lot of theatre- Pipeline is super refreshing.
“There’s an honesty, there’s a tenderness, there’s a softness, there’s a hardness to our experience, that’s beautiful and it shows in this work. And that’s one of the reasons why I jumped at the opportunity to do it, because I was like, ‘We Don’t get a lot of opportunities to see stories about young Black men, who we might label as troubled, and really getting the inner workings of their experience,’” Weaks said with passion.
As in real life, no one is safe from blame in Pipeline. In some ways everyone is at fault (including Omari) for the young man’s troubles and stress factors in the play.
Nevertheless, one thing that became increasingly obvious is how much can change when listening to children’s needs, as well as others.
“When it comes to solutions, I think what the play offers is really:
‘Are we listening to each other,’” Weaks said.
The actor also emphasized the importance of doing Pipeline in the nation’s capital.
“When it comes to policy and education, that’s a whole different can of worms, but that’s why I love doing this show in Washington, because people are coming to the theatre who are in a position to do something,” he said. “So hopefully it gets them talking or thinking about how our education system is serving or not serving our young people.”
Weaks emphasized that the lessons in Pipeline go beyond immediate policy reform, and directly relate to the future of the world.
“We’re talking about our future as people, as Americans, as citizens of the world, and we’re educating our young people to be those leaders and so how we’re treating these kids directly influences how we’re going to live,” Weaks said, wrapping up the interview.
Pipeline has been extended and runs at Studio Theatre until Feb. 23. For more information on Studio Theatre’s Pipeline and to take part in this strong display of theatrical education, entertainment and advocacy visit www.studiotheatre.org/plays/play-detail/2019-2020-pipeline.