Augusto Boal, a Brazilian theatre practitioner, wrote,
Theatre is a form of knowledge; it should and can also be a means of transforming society. Theatre can help us build our future, rather than just waiting for it.”
My US Acting & Directing syllabus is titled, “Theatre to Transform,” harkening to the transformation that young actors make as they bridge the gap between Middle School drama, and the more “serious” work of text analysis and finding “truth” in performance in the Upper School. Theatre can transform on a personal level; it can be an instrument for change within a community to share ideas and stories; and it has the power to transform on a civic basis.
In fact, by the end of his career, Boal became a vereador (similar to a City Councilor) in Brazil, where instead of choosing between politics and theatre, he introduced Legislative Theatre. I am not expecting all of my students to become politicians (though I hope if they do, I am helping to prepare them to be eloquent speakers and careful listeners). However, I am hoping that, by the end of the academic year, some of the performances they see will move them, and that each of them will find some moment that is reflected back to them that resonates on a deeper level. I’m hoping they feel transformed from where they began.
When I saw that the IRT was producing Dominique Morrisseau’s Pipeline, I was excited to have the opportunity to bring students to watch a piece of contemporary theatre. IRT’s description of the play is a “searing drama” which explores the story of “Nya’s son, Omari, who is tormented with rage and in trouble at school. A fractured family navigates a broken system as a mother fights for her son’s future in a world divided by race, class and money. Compassion and eloquence galvanize this gritty new work by one of America’s most sought-after playwrights.”
I’ve been aware of Dominique Morrisseau’s award-winning career as a playwright, and her firm place in contemporary American theatre. She has been named a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant Recipient, and she has a new musical headed for Broadway, Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations. Her work has the voice of her own authentic experience, and she captures truth in her characters’ dialogue.
Allyson Horton, Director of Equity and Inclusion, joined forces with me and, along with Marlina Koonce and Heather Teets, accompanied 45 students to see the show. The actors hosted a post-show discussion, including our students.
After the performance, students offered their response to the play. Imaan Mirza, ’20, wrote:
“The play was important to me for a number of reasons. It's incredible for me to step out of the bubble I live in and step into someone else's shoes, which is what theatre enables the audience to do. The fact that Pipeline is a show that tackles prevalent issues in our society today means that we can temporarily step into the shoes of the characters and gain some more insight on the struggles they face daily. Through experiencing someone's life - even for a short duration - we learn to be more empathetic and understanding to others' plights. After watching Pipeline, we were encouraged to continue these conversations about these problems that had resonated with us. Theater has the power to touch so many people, and Pipeline uses this power to start important conversations about how systemic racism infiltrates the educational system. I hope the fact that we temporarily stepped into the shoes of the characters in Pipeline results in less temporary discussions about the school-to-prison pipeline!”
Pipeline also offers important lessons for teachers. After a critical plot point is revealed, it becomes clear that Omari’s teacher unwittingly, insensitively, or maybe even purposely, targeted Omari, the only African-American student in the room, for his opinion about literature and race, on a day when Omari’s own world was collapsing around him. Instead of recognizing his need for space, and respecting his decision to refrain from contributing, Omari’s teacher insisted on an answer. Omari responded with violence, and throughout the play, his parents await news of whether he will face charges.
Boal also said, “Theatre is the art of looking at ourselves.” The conversations about the Pipeline experience went on for days after; the content was moving, provocative and uncomfortable. One teacher remarked, “This should be required viewing for all teachers.” That comment spurred us on to secure tickets for any member of faculty who wanted to see the show. By the end of the run, more than 25 teachers saw Pipeline. Their responses have shown that this play has certainly given our community the opportunity to look at ourselves and question how we can transform.
Said Laura Schroeder, Upper School Art teacher, “I am thankful for having experienced Pipeline. As a work of art, it used the recurring appearance of the Gwendolyn Brooks poem ‘We Real Cool’ and its devastating final phrase, ‘We/Die soon,’ to powerfully spotlight the high stakes of inequity and the stress it causes. The play also incorporated humor and hope, and the staging and performances were dynamic and captivating. For me, Pipeline offered a challenge to examine my actions and their effects and a compelling illustration of the importance of listening, and posing questions, and listening again to the young people we as teachers try to serve.”
Patti Duckworth, Lower School Counselor, said “I would like to thank Park Tudor for making the experience possible for us. In addition to Imaan's thoughtful response regarding the impact of systemic racism, I would like to add that Pipeline reminded me of just how much distress some children and adults are carrying with them that is just below the surface, and that we must sharpen our ability to take the extra step or extra moment to respond with compassion and demonstrate how much we care.”