New Stage’s ‘Pipeline’ asks important questions but doesn’t leave audience hanging

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Photo by Michael George Photography

Sharon Miles and Devin Hunter star as mother and son in “Pipeline” at New Stage Theatre.

Update: New Stage Theatre has canceled all remaining performances of “Pipeline,” through March 22, in the wake of Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba’s declaration of a state of emergency for Jackson and prohibitions of gatherings of more than 50 people, based on Centers for Disease Control information and concerns of COVID-19 spread. Other activities will be postponed until further notice. Visit www.newstagetheatre.com for details and more information.

A fiercely devoted mother and teacher, her son’s angry outburst and a broken education system that could doom his fate — all are in the “Pipeline” spotlight. But illuminated alongside its hot button core issue, are the pressures, passions and sometimes clashing perspectives of people caught up in it.

New Stage Theatre presents “Pipeline” March 10 through March 22. The production marks the regional premiere of the play by Dominique Morisseau, one of the top produced playwrights in the country in recent years; she’s also the writer of “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations” on Broadway and a writer on TV’s “Shameless.“ Lincoln Center Theater’s production of “Pipeline” aired on PBS in 2019.

“Dominique Morisseau … believes in having theater serve as a mechanism for starting
conversation, and addressing problems” and social issues, says Francine Thomas Reynolds, New Stage artistic director and director of this production. “I like this play because it asks a lot of questions. And, it doesn’t really leave you with a lot of answers.”

Not that it leaves an audience hanging. But, it will likely leave them talking.

The education, care, protection and preparation of young people, particularly African-American youth, is at the heart of the drama. Nya (Sharon Miles) is a committed teacher in an inner-city public high school, and a divorced mother hoping to give her son, Omari (Devin Hunter), more and better opportunities through a private boarding school upstate.

When an altercation at the private school threatens that future, Nya has to come face-to-face with his rage, her parental choices and the public school and private school systems as she fights to save her son. The weave of African-American literature — including Richard Wright’s “Native Son” and Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “We Real Cool” — layers dramatic touchstones amid the tension, urgency and looming specter of the school-to-prison pipeline.

Sharp and fast-paced, the drama unfolds over a span of two days as it touches on a range of social issues, including third-strike procedures, failing schools, school violence, discipline, racial bias, cultural stereotyping and an educational system that doesn’t serve all students equally. Whip-smart exchanges bring flashes of humor, too. The play is recommended for ages 14 and older; check www.newstagetheatre.com for an advisory on strong language and content.

Actors in the cast find plenty to identify with in this rich material, and expect it will resonate strongly, too, with audiences in Mississippi, which has struggled with the school-to-prison pipeline.

“What Nya and I have in common is the quest to try to figure out how we can save young black men, specifically,” Sharon Miles says of her role. “That quest to understand and to empower and to figure out the unspoken scars that we don’t talk about, and we probably can’t even put our finger on — I feel like that is the constant quest.

“What you see in this show is a mother who is fighting for his life. She’s fighting for our life. But you also have a teacher who shows up to fight for those kids,” with a strong investment in public schools. “It definitely raises questions about violence in school and kids connecting to school, but also what happens to a kid when you place them in a different environment, in a different culture where they may not be understood, and I think that’s also happening in our world today.”

Photo by Michael George Photography

The cast of “Pipeline” includes (from left) Yohance Myles, Sharon Miles, Devin Hunter (seated), Jaymi Horn, Darius Omar Williams and Jo Ann Robinson.

Actor Devin Hunter sees parallels in his role as Omari. “It’s like something like my father told me as a child, ‘You’re already born with two strikes against you. One, is that you’re a man. Two, is that you’re black.’” he says. Hunter connects on a personal level, too, as the son of divorced parents and the anger he felt as a teen. “He has a lot of rage, and it’s a lot deeper than he thinks it is.” He sees the value in Nya’s questions to her son. “As a teenager, that’s one of the best things that could be offered — understanding, knowing that somebody is hearing you.

“I enjoy Omari,” Hunter says, “because I can find the range in people understanding, hopefully, the difference between passion and anger.”

Xavier, Omari’s father and a marketing executive, is at home in the business world, but challenged on the emotional front. “It’s easy to deal with numbers and people on paper, and resolve those things,” Yohance Myles says of his Xavier role, “but when you start dealing with people’s lives and their emotions, we really don’t have answers to those things.” All are working toward problem-solving, and agreeable terms; he, too, has to listen. “That, again, is the conversation of, ‘What does it mean to be present?’ from all the different angles.”

“Pipeline’s” cast also includes: Jaymi Horn as Jasmine, Omari’s girlfriend; Jo Ann Robinson as Laurie, a public school teacher; and Darius Omar Williams as Dun, a school security officer.

The beauty of the play, Miles says, is that its highlight of the front lines of the pipeline battle — educators fighting for education equality, complications in public and private schools, even family dynamics — encourages empathy.

“Whatever the news story is, there’s a person behind it. Whatever the YouTube video, there is a human behind it. There’s a moment that led up to it. There’s a whole background story, and that’s what this play does. This play says, ‘This is happening. We’re all affected by it. Let’s have a moment where we see into the window of this world.’”

During the play’s run New Stage Theatre presents several programs that tie into the themes of “Pipeline” and further the conversation:

March 11 Actor Chat — Post-show discussion with the cast, in the auditorium.

March 12 New Stage Theatre Dialogue — Post-show discussion led by Vangela Wade,
Mississippi Center for Justice president/CEO, in the Hewes Room.

March 15 Staged reading of “Native Son” — The reading of Nambi E. Kelly’s adaptation of Richard Wright’s novel, directed by Yolanda Williams, is part of the MIssissippi Play Series, at 4 p.m. in the Hewes Room. Admission is free for “Pipeline” ticketholders, $5 for others.

March 17 Educator Night — Educators receive a $15 ticket and a post-show discussion
moderated by Von Gordon, youth engagement coordinator at the William Winter Institute.

March 18 New Stage Theatre Dialogue — Post-show discussion led by Oleta Fitzgerald,
Children’s Defense Fund southern regional director, in the Hewes Room.

March 20 Youth Night: Students receive a discounted rate on tickets, plus a post-show
discussion with cast members.

Ongoing: We Real Cool Poetry Contest

Performances are 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays March 10-22. Tickets are $30, with discounts available for students, senior citizens, military and groups. Purchase tickets at the box office (1100 Carlisle Street in Jackson’s Belhaven neighborhood), by phone at 601-948-3533 or online at www.newstagetheatre.com.