Gwendolyn Brook's 1959 poem "We Real Cool" is a mere eight lines and 24 words. Despite its short length, Brooks is able to pack in themes of rebellion, youth, and morality, especially as it applies to young black men.
This poem is used heavily in Cleveland Play House's production of Dominique Morisseau's play Pipeline to discuss the school-to-prison pipeline, in which disciplinary policies push children into the criminal justice system.
Like Brooks, Morisseau is able to pack a range of themes discussing the inequities black children face within the school system into a short, yet powerful, 100 minutes of theater. Morisseau's play is deftly handled by CPH, whose production sparks much-needed discussion and reflection upon society's treatment of young black men.
Nya, an inner-city schoolteacher, has sent her son, Omari, to private school to provide him with more opportunities and a better chance at a successful future. However, when a teacher questions Omari, the boy pushes back and is expelled. This casts Nya into a downward spiral as she worries for her son's future and questions her role in making him into the man he is today.
Pipeline premiered in 2017 and was nominated for five Lucille Lortel Awards. Morisseau, who won an Obie for the piece, was inspired to write the play because of the commonplace shooting of black men and boys, including Michael Brown.
Director Steve H. Broadnax III gives the heavy themes of the show ample breathing room. The show provides commentary on race, education, and inequality, all of which pack a punch. Broadnax III ensures that it never feels as if you are at a lecture on societal issues, but rather like you are just being told the story of a real family. He accomplishes this by letting the cast take the reins and supporting their performances with subtle, yet effective, creative elements.
At first, actor Kadeem Ali Harris appeared to be too old to play Omari. His disposition was mature, and his appearance reads as older than a teenage boy. However, this is just one of the many points the play is trying to prove. The young black men who police so often feel "threatened" by are just that: young, teenage boys.
Harris doesn't necessarily look the age of a teenager, but the youthful passion with which he embodies his character says otherwise. In Harris' portrayal, Omari feels like just another misunderstood teenager with built-up rage and frustration — one who is struggling to meet their parents' expectations while attempting to discover themselves and the life they want to live.
Omari's girlfriend Jasmine, played by Jade Radford, is also facing this struggle. Jasmine's parents work multiple jobs so they can afford to send her to private school, one that she isn't very interested in attending. Radford is a pleasure to watch. She delivers her character's strong opinions with a straight-forward outspokenness that's not only endearing, but also powerful.
One such powerful moment is when she explains that she hates her school because she doesn't fit in or feel comfortable. She expresses that the privilege that her white peers have isn't going to rub off on her, and that she'll always be viewed as the "poor black girl."
Suzette Azariah Gunn is wonderful as Nya. Nya is a complex character whose inner struggle demands portrayal by an actress who is matronly, relatable, and empathy worthy. Gunn is all of these things and more. Her concern for Omari's future, his safety and her fear that her parenting is the cause of his trouble, is moving.
Her ex-husband, Xavier, played by Bjorn DuPaty, is also concerned for his son, but believes that Omari needs a firmer hand than what Nya has used so far. DuPaty is imposing and properly unlikable, much unlike Eric Robinson and Rachel Harker, who play security guard, Dun, and teacher, Laurie, respectively.
Robinson is playful and funny as Dun and adds some much-needed lightheartedness to the show. Meanwhile, Laurie has dedicated her life to teaching but can't seem to break through to her students. She is frustrated by the lack of mental health help her students receive, which is well portrayed by Harker.
Staged in the Outcalt with seating on three sides, Michael Carnahan's scenic design is divided into three distinct spaces: a teacher's break room, Nya's living room, and a space that's transformed into a classroom, bedroom, and waiting room using furniture.
Carnahan can be commended for designing a set that evokes unpleasant memories of high school, such as his use of unevenly patterned laminate flooring and those pinching, uncomfortable plastic chairs. Even the long, bar light bulbs spanning the set remind one of school. The stage is backed by paneling and tall, jail-house bars, all of which are wonderfully lighted by Michael Boll. As scenes grow intense, the lighting shifts subtly until all is basked in a red glow.
Likewise, the intensity of Curtis Craig's sound design runs parallel with the play's action. Between scenes, hip hop plays, and projections designed by Katherine Freer, which are often video collages of high-schoolers fighting, play on the back wall. These projections remind us that while we are watching fiction, it's based in reality.
CPH's production is an eye-opening, poignant commentary on the harsh realities faced by young black men. It's hard to imagine that after this show, any audience member could leave the Outcalt without feeling enlightened and inspired to evoke change.