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Nya, a public school teacher at an overcrowded and underfunded city high school, writes the words of Gwendolyn Brooks’s 1959 poem “We Real Cool” on the board for her students. What was once her favorite lesson plan has become an anxiety trip as the poem now has a face: that of her seventeen-year-old son Omari. Nya believed that she had saved him from the school-to-prison pipeline when she and her ex-husband Xavier sent Omari to a majority white boarding school upstate. However, when she gets a call from the school informing her that Omari got into a fight with his English teacher during class, she worries that Brooks’ prophecy of doomed youth is about to come true.
Omari has tunnel vision and the only way he can see himself surviving this incident is by running away from a school that threatens to crush him under the weight of representation. He feels tokenized by his teachers and his peers as a Black student from the inner-city who “got out” when all Omari wants is to be a regular teenager. He is angry and lost and he thinks, maybe, he can be free from the suffocation of the prep school if he just runs. Of course, his girlfriend Jasmine would never tell Nya of her son’s plans, even when she comes knocking on her dorm room door, demanding answers.
Whether at Nya’s indigent public school or in the spotless hallways of Omari’s boarding school, the American education system is failing. However, as the school board debates pressing charges against Omari, they see the situation as quite black and white. Nya is trying to do her best to raise a young Black man in 2017, begging Omari, "tell me how to save you,” to the rhythmic underscoring of Gwendolyn Brooks’ poetry. “We Real Cool. We/Left school. We/Lurk late. We/Strike straight. We/Sing sin. We/Thin gin. We/Jazz June. We/Die soon.”
Source: https://d1fl2pbib0u1tq.cloudfront.net/pdf/Study%20Guides/2018- 2019/Pipeline%
Nya is a divorced mother and public high school teacher trying her best to raise her teenage son on her own. Her son, Omari, is a bright but very angry young man who struggles to fit in at his expensive private school, Fernbrook Academy. When an altercation with a teacher becomes physical, Omari faces expulsion or worse. He tells his girlfriend, Jasmine, about his plan to run away from school.
Meanwhile, Nya discusses the situation with her coworkers at the public high school, fellow teacher Laurie, who has just returned from a three-week leave for reconstructive surgery after being attacked by the family of a student, and security guard Dun, whose friendliness Nya is quick to rebuff. After a stressful day at school, Nya drives to Fernbrook to pick up Omari. She finds him gone and talks to Jasmine instead, urging her to reveal where Omari has gone. Jasmine initially refuses, but at last tells Nya truthfully that she knows Omari has run away, but not where he has gone. That night, however, Omari returns home of his own accord. Nya and Omari try to talk about what happened, but they are unable to find any resolution. Nya tells Omari she needs instructions for how to help him, but he has nothing to offer.
The next day, Omari’s father, Xavier, comes to talk with Nya about Omari’s future. They decide to pull Omari out of Fernbrook and send him to live with Xavier. After another stressful day at school that involves Laurie hitting a student with a broom and facing the loss of her job, Nya breaks down with a panic attack that sends her to the hospital. In the hospital waiting room, Omari and Xavier confront one another over their difficult relationship. Nothing improves, and Xavier walks away, leaving Omari with Nya. In the play’s final scene, Nya pleads with the school board not to press charges against Omari, while Omari presents his mother with a list of instructions to improve their relationship.
Dominique Morisseau is the author of The Detroit Project (A 3-Play Cycle) which includes the following plays: Skeleton Crew (Atlantic Theater Company), Paradise Blue (Signature Theatre), and Detroit ’67 (Public Theater, Classical Theatre of Harlem and NBT). Additional plays include: Pipeline (Lincoln Center Theatre), Sunset Baby (LAByrinth Theatre); Blood at the Root (National Black Theatre) and Follow Me To Nellie’s (Premiere Stages). She is also the TONY nominated book writer on the new Broadway musical Ain’t Too Proud – The Life and Times of the Temptations (Imperial Theatre). Dominique is alumna of The Public Theater Emerging Writer’s Group, Women’s Project Lab, and Lark Playwrights Workshop and has developed work at Sundance Lab, Williamstown Theatre Festival and Eugene O’Neil Playwrights Conference. She most recently served as Co-Producer on the Showtime series “Shameless” (3 seasons). Additional awards include: Spirit of Detroit Award, PoNY Fellowship, Sky-Cooper Prize, TEER Trailblazer Award, Steinberg Playwright Award, Audelco Awards, NBFT August Wilson Playwriting Award, Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama, OBIE Award (2), Ford Foundation Art of Change Fellowship, Variety’s Women of Impact for 2017-18, and a recent MacArthur Genius Grant Fellow.
Dominique Morisseau writes plays that carry “pieces and shreds and glimpses of people who have raised [her], who she loves and cares for fiercely,” her frequent collaborator, director Kamilah Forbes, explains. These pieces of real life, knit together with imagination and fierce love—as well as a desire to carve a space for their stories on the American stage—have defined Morisseau’s writing thus far.
Morisseau grew up in the College Park neighborhood of Detroit, which she calls “a pretty affluent working-class community” where now she sees “houses boarded up.” The people, speech, rhythms, and stories she encountered there—and the turns those lives have taken—form the bedrock of her work. As a child and teenager, she acted in plays and musicals and danced with the Detroit City Dance Company. She studied acting at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where she was compelled to write her first play. She found that the theatre department “did not do a lot of nontraditional casting,” and as an African-American woman, she struggled to find roles. Inspired by poet/playwright Ntozake Shange, she wrote her own play: The Blackness Blues—Time to Change the Tune (A Sister's Story). She ultimately expanded the play from a cast of three to a cast of twenty to meet the interest from Black women who wanted to participate—even from outside of the theatre department.
After graduating from college, Morisseau moved to New York City to pursue dancing. She wrote poetry on the side, but found herself performing her poetry to win rent money instead of writing for the art itself. She switched her craft to playwriting and joined the Creative Arts Team at City College of New York and the Emerging Writers Group at the Public Theater. It was at the Public Theater where she had the idea for the Detroit Project. The Detroit Project is made up of three plays: Detroit ’67 (2013) (winner of the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama), Paradise Blue (2015), and Skeleton Crew (2016).
Before the Detroit Project came to fruition, her 2011 play Follow Me to Nellie’s premiered at Premiere Stages in Union, NJ. It explores African-American women’s experiences with segregation in a 1955 Mississippi brothel. Like much of her other work, Morisseau was inspired by her family to write—in this case, by an aunt who ran a brothel for sixty years. This early play establishes what Morisseau does so well throughout her career: she writes with an awareness of the people at the center of the social and political issues of her plays. The characters—their dreams, desires, and convictions—are the stories’ driving forces.
While she was working on the Detroit Project, Sunset Baby premiered at the Labyrinth Theatre Company in 2013. It is a three-character show set in the present day about a father and daughter reentering each other’s lives: Nina, a tough and unforgiving drug dealer; her boyfriend Damon; and her father Kenyatta, the former leader of a black power movement. The play solidified Morisseau’s firecracker language and ability to weave the past and present into a vibrant whole. The New York Times praised the piece for “talk that’s not only dynamic; it’s also dynamite, and it explodes when you least expect it.
Morisseau’s produced one-acts include Third Grade, Black at Michigan, and love.lies.liberation. She has received the Barrie and Bernice Stavis Playwriting Award, the Weissberg Award for Playwriting, and the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama. Morisseau’s dialogue is rich with explosive yet poetic dialects. TheatreMania describes the rhythmical voice of her characters in Skeleton Crew: “they sing with the vernacular of their community.” She has said that “Everyone needs to see themselves. We have to make space.” But for Morisseau, diverse representation extends beyond the number of people of color on stage to the way audience members of color are received at the theatre.
Morisseau describes herself as “an artist whose work…welcome[s] call and response from the audience,” and seeks out a theatre culture with space for recognition and exchange. In her theatre “you are welcome to come as you are…hoot and holler or sit quietly in reverence. Worship and engage however you do.” Morisseau’s theatre experience is a deeply personal one—one that she believes everyone should have, be it in how they respond to the performance or how the stories and people are represented on stage.
Pipeline premiered at the Lincoln Center Theater in June 2017. As a former educator with personal ties to public and private schools, Morisseau is acutely connected to the problems of the American educational system. Pipeline examines cultural bias in private schools as well as lack of individualization in teaching or awareness of the students’ emotional well-being. In 2018, Morisseau received the Obie Award in Playwriting for Pipeline. In another recent project, Morisseau wrote the book for the musical Ain’t Too Proud, which opened at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in August 2017 and premiered on Broadway at the Imperial Theatre in March 2019. Going back to Morisseau's Detroit roots, Ain’t Too Proud explores The Temptations’ rise to international fame and Motown icon status. The musical was praised by critics for its sensational storytelling of the personal and the political and received 12 nominations for the 2019 Tony Awards, including Best Book of a Musical.
Morisseau’s career took another leap when she was named a MacArthur Fellow. This group of 20–30 individuals across industries—ranging from mathematicians to investigative journalists—is honored for “extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits,” according to the MacArthur Foundation. Along with the inherent prestige of this honor, the MacArthur Genius Grant includes a monetary award to invest in each individual’s pursuits and potential. Morisseau’s next play, Confederates, will premiere in the spring of 2020 at Signature Theatre, where she is a Playwright-in-Residence. Confederates follows the striking parallel stories of two Black women across centuries: one a slave-turned-Union spy, and the other a modern-day university professor. As her career ascends new heights, Morisseau’s mastery of personal stories that highlight current political and social issues continues to thrive.
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Tiffany Gilly (she/her) is doing what she can to be an advocate and ally to Black People and People of Color through her art. She is an actor who seeks to support theatre and stories by Black Playwrights and Playwrights of Color, so she started this play-reading group to increase the knowledge of plays by non-White Playwrights as a starting point or a stepping stone for further exploration as artists.