“A tremble in your heart on the daily.”
That’s how the character Nya in the play “Pipeline” describes sending her Black son out into the world. “You have no idea if they’re safe … it’s frightening.”
It’s an experience director Weyni Mengesha and actor Akosua Amo-Adem understand. Mengesha has two young sons and Amo-Adem has four brothers, “who are darker skinned, who are large in stature, who look like … the stereotypes that are put out there of Black men,” she said.
As they work on the Canadian premiere of “Pipeline,” playing at Soulpepper Theatre through May 8, Mengesha and Amo-Adem are bringing these and other of their experiences to bear. The time when one of Mengesha’s friends got beaten up while they were walking down the street as teenagers. When Amo-Adem and her family moved to Rexdale and watched a police station get built on a corner where a community centre could have been.
“We hold onto these experiences and often have not been believed in the past,” said Mengesha. “You just end up festering and growing into fears that you learn how to live with. And I think (playwright Dominique Morisseau) is saying, actually, no, we don’t have to live with this. We have to share it. We have to release it.”
In the play, Nya (Amo-Adem) is a teacher in an American public school who is overwhelmed with anxiety when her son Omari (Tony Ofori) gets into a fight and is threatened with expulsion from his exclusive boarding academy. While Nya’s protectiveness is understandable, Morisseau also makes clear that it’s not necessarily the best way to help her son. “She’s not able to hear him when he’s saying that the thing that you’re trying to give me is not the thing that I need,” said Amo-Adem. “It speaks to the miscommunication between parents and children sometimes.”
It also speaks to a bigger problem: that educational systems do not treat students of colour fairly. The play’s title refers to the school-to-prison pipeline, that is, the policies and procedures that send a disproportionate number of Black students into disciplinary proceedings in school and toward the criminal justice system.
This is a Canadian as well as an American problem: statistics released by the Black Legal Action Centre reveal that 42 per cent of Black high school students in Ontario have been suspended at least once, are 29 times more likely to experience discriminatory treatment by police at school and seven times more likely to experience discriminatory treatment from teachers.
Nya tries to shelter Omari from these realities, but her attentions risk stifling him. “It’s easier to control your child than it is to control the system,” said Mengesha, “but at what point are we going to ask the system to be accountable so that our child can just be a child?”
As Soulpepper’s artistic director, Mengesha programmed “Pipeline” in 2019, and it’s one of the few shows that the theatre chose to retain from its pre-pandemic schedule. The global racial reckoning in the wake of the murder of George Floyd has changed the context for the play’s reception, said Mengesha.
Disproportionate violence against Black bodies “was something (Black people) always knew,” but when Floyd was murdered, “all of a sudden, the whole world believed,” said Wengesha. “I think plays like this really try to offer people insight into lived experience and how it costs.”
In the heat of an argument, Nya says to Omari that he’s acting like a “king or a god that no one can tame,” and he holds her to account for using that language. “It’s forcing the audience to look at the … moments in which they themselves have likened a Black body to an animal, to something that isn’t human,” said Amo-Adem.
“Sometimes the worst violence comes out of us to each other,” said Mengesha. “We have ingested it, it lives inside of our bodies … everybody was taught to disrespect our bodies, including ourselves.”
The company has taken time out of its rehearsal process to discuss high-profile instances of aggression toward or between Black people: the detention of “Black Panther” director Ryan Coogler after trying to withdraw $12,000 from his own bank account; and actor Will Smith’s slapping of comedian Chris Rock at the Oscars.
“That moment is bigger than the thing that happened between those two men,” said Mengesha of the Smith incident. When she saw the clip of Smith slapping Rock, a line that Nya says about Omari came into her head: “His rage is not his sin. It was never his sin. It is his inheritance.”
“There is no space to express things that we need to express … we can’t do it in the same way that other bodies can,” said Mengesha. “Somebody like Will Smith, who is a particular image for the Black community, he carries a lot, I think. I don’t know him personally, but there is a lot that gets pushed down … ultimately it comes out and unfortunately came out in that way.”
She expressed concern that media attention to what happened between Smith and Rock perpetuates “stereotypes … We’re like, ‘Oh God, we’re working so hard.’ And then we get thrown. It’s a push back. And then at the same time, we have this incredible empathy too. It’s so complicated.”
The characters in “Pipeline” are all flawed and all struggling to cope with fraught situations.
“My dream is that people come and see the show and then they go home and they talk,” said Mengesha. “Mom, dad, brother, sister, everybody, whoever, whatever the family makeup is, that they talk about what it is to be them. And that they make space for each other.”
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