Horizon Theatre Examines School-To-Prison Pipeline In Latest Production

Jay Jones Stephen Ruffin Pipeline Horizon Theatre.
Jay Jones Stephen Ruffin Pipeline Horizon Theatre.
Credit Summer Evans / WABE

On its surface, being expelled from school may not seem to be a life-or-death matter. But for a young black man, it could indeed determine his fate. The struggle between a teenager’s angst, his mother’s guidance, and an educational system that is stacked against him is at the center of the Obie Award-winning play, “Pipeline” by Dominique Morisseau. Horizon Theatre’s production is on stage through April 21.

We learn early in the show that the student in question, Omari, has gotten into a violent altercation with a teacher at his private boarding school, that there is video, and that he is being threatened with expulsion and could even have charges brought against him. His mother, Nya—a teacher at a public high school with plenty of problems of its own—is forced to reconcile his actions with her own parenting decisions as she tries to save her son.

“[Omari] is one of only two black students at this entire school,” actor Stephen Ruffin, playing Omari, tells “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes, “and the reason this altercation happened is because he was being singled out and provoked by his teacher in front of an entirely white class.”

But the story is not just about one young black man’s tragic downfall. Morisseau’s play is layered with nuance and brings up issues of wealth and privilege, as well as the policing of black anger.

“[Morisseau] takes the stereotypes and turns them upside down so it becomes more of a universal story,” says actor Jay Jones, playing Omari’s estranged father, Xavier. “We talk about just poverty and black men from the hood and the disadvantages inherent from fractured communities, but Omari’s not that kid. This his has got money in his pocket—he’s saving his money that his father sends him, but his father is not offering the love and support that he needed.”

“Men, especially black men in America have been taught a certain way how to love,” Ruffin says. “[The play] is about love languages too, it’s about this disconnect in masculinity and what it means to be a good father.”