The Ensemble Theatre Mines the Emotional Depths of Pipeline

Curtis Von and Tanner Ellis in The Ensemble Theatre's production of Pipeline.
Curtis Von and Tanner Ellis in The Ensemble Theatre's production of Pipeline. Photo by David Bray
Mothers worry. It’s just one of those universal truths you can rely on, like death and taxes. But in Dominique Morisseau’s 2017 play Pipeline, now playing at The Ensemble Theatre, one mother’s worry is amplified and put center stage in a damning indictment of the circumstances that create and maintain the titular school-to-prison “pipeline,” which disproportionately affects black students.

The worried mother is Nya, a public school teacher who spends her days in a war zone, caught in the ongoing battle between students and teachers. Even the morning announcements speak to the dichotomy in which she lives, with warnings like, “I repeat, you cannot win,” spoken next to reminders such as, “Also, there’s a pep rally after school.” Far from the public school battle is Nya’s own son, Omari, but he’s in no less trouble. Feeling provoked and singled out during a class discussion on Richard’s Wright’s Native Son at Fernbrook, Omari’s ivory tower of a boarding school, Omari lashed out and pushed his teacher. Already suspended, and with threats of expulsion and, worse yet, charges looming over him, Omari struggles to figure out how he got here and what happens next. As does his mother. 

Morisseau was inspired to write about the school-to-prison pipeline while reading Michelle Alexander's book about mass incarceration, The New Jim Crow, and for good reason. The numbers show that school disciplinary policies, which disproportionately affect black students, lead to them being three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers and, even more worrisome, students who are suspended or expelled are also almost three times more likely to have a run in with the juvenile justice system in the following year. With subject matter like this, it goes without saying that the stakes are high. Luckily, director Rachel Hemphill Dickson manages quite the balancing act, tackling the production with a sense of urgency while never losing sight of the overwhelming humanity Morisseau endows to each of her characters, starting with Teacake Ferguson as Nya.

Ferguson is a woman on the verge as Nya. She’s defensive, strung tight, and claustrophobically caught between what she knows from her years of being a teacher and what she wants from, and for, her son. Her desperation and inadequacy is palpable; the impotence of being a parent, unable to make things okay when you would gladly do anything and give everything for your child, painfully on display.

Opposite Ferguson, Tanner Ellis’s Omari is strikingly vulnerable. Beneath the frustration and outright anger – toward Fernbrook, toward his teacher and, ultimately, toward his father – is a mess of emotion that bubbles up, revealing a smart, sensitive and self-aware young man who wrestles with the self-fulfilling prophecy society’s assigned to him, one that can all too easily get the best of him. Ellis partners with Ferguson and Curtis Von, who plays his estranged father Xavier, for the production's most emotionally draining scenes.

Von strides into the play during the second act like he owns the place, a heavy presence with a firm hand. Immediately, you start to anticipate his eventual encounter with Omari, which pays off when Von and Ellis face off in a hospital waiting room, easily the best scene of the play.

On the flip side of those emotionally heavy scenes are the scenes Ellis shares with Brianna Odo-Boms. As Jasmine, Odo-Boms is acutely aware of her place as the “token poor girl of color” who’s weighed down and boxed in by expectations just as Omari. But more than that, Jasmine is a schoolgirl in love, and Odo-Boms is a treat to watch as she maneuvers from defiantly loyal and wise beyond her years to giggly and amusingly pleased to hear that she’s Omari’s confidante.

Morisseau’s 20-plus years of experience in education may be best seen in her characterizations of Nya’s co-workers, Laurie and Dun. Marcy Bannor plays Laurie, “a machine gun of a teacher.” She’s a tough lady who is unfailingly dedicated to teaching, just back to school after being cut in an altercation with a student’s family, inclined to mock substitutes who come in and use class time to show white savior films like Dangerous Minds instead of teaching, and yet just as vulnerable to being broken by the job as anyone else. Dealdon Watson’s Dun, one of the school’s security guards and self-described as “the last of the good guys,” is an incredibly likeable voice of reason. In a limited amount of stage time, he shows that he’s caring and patient, but that the odds are just as stacked against him. Together, the two characters add depth and realism to the public school environment.

Like Morisseau’s script, Larry Wesley’s set is raw and sharp, full of angles and dark corners. Nya’s public school is mostly bare, unfulfilled and unfinished, while Jasmine’s prep school dorm, a small corner sanctuary with walls of turquoise and purple where the teens can be most like themselves, provides a bright pop of color to the otherwise stripped production. Prop Designer Star Hinson populates the world with only its necessities, and Kris Phelps takes a similar stark, direct approach in lighting, as does Adrian Washington with the primarily ambient sound design.

The production did wobble a bit in the first act with its pacing. Some of the dialogue and the first reading of Gwendolyn Brooks's poem "We Real Cool,” an otherwise haunting motif, felt too rushed. But that can be chalked up to opening night jitters. And while the projections used were overall powerful in adding context and scene-setting, Morisseau’s play is heavy-handed and didactic, and some of the projections just doubled down on that.

Still, Pipeline is a thought-provoker, an intimate character piece, and more than worth seeing. It is also, as director Rachel Hemphill Dickson asked in both her pre-curtain speech and in the program notes, a conversation starter.

Performances continue through June 2 at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 3 p.m. Sundays at The Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main. For more information, call 713-520-0055 or visit $30 to $44.
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Natalie de la Garza is a contributing writer who adores all things pop culture and longs to know everything there is to know about the Houston arts and culture scene.