About the Play
Meet Dominique Morisseau, the playwright
Dominique was born and grew up in Detroit, Michigan which has been the setting of many of her plays. She began performing spoken word poetry in her hometown and studied acting in college, where she first started writing plays because there were too few roles for her to perform. She has said, “Everybody needs to see themselves. We have to make space.”
Dominique worked as a teaching artist in public schools all over New York City with the Creative Arts Team. She also is the daughter of a 40-year veteran teacher in Highland Park, MI who she describes as a master-educator. Dominique dedicated PIPELINE to her mother saying, “This isn’t her story. It’s just a similar world in which she was a fiercely committed educator, and worked very hard to help her students transcend”.
Dominique speaks with the hint of a Southern accent. She always wears the best earrings! She says, if you can’t fit your fist through your hoops, why bother? And her wedding dance video went viral on YouTube – check it out!
Here’s a brief animated video of a story that Dominique tells about a young student of her mom’s and the importance of seeing the whole person.
Dominique’s official biography from her website:
Dominique Morisseau is the author of The Detroit Project (A Three-Play Cycle) which includes the following plays: Skeleton Crew (Atlantic Theater Company), Paradise Blue (Signature Theatre), and Detroit ’67 (Public Theater, Classical Theatre of Harlem and NBT). Additional plays include: Pipeline (Lincoln Center Theater), Sunset Baby (LAByrinth Theatre); Blood at the Root (National Black Theatre) and Follow Me To Nellie’s (Premiere Stages). She is also the TONY nominated book writer on the new Broadway musical Ain’t Too Proud – The Life and Times of the Temptations (Imperial Theatre). Dominique is an alumna of The Public Theater’s Emerging Writer’s Group, Women’s Project Lab, and Lark Playwrights Workshop and has developed work at Sundance Lab, Williamstown Theatre Festival and Eugene O’Neil Playwrights Conference. She most recently served as Co-Producer on the Showtime series Shameless (three seasons). Additional awards include: Spirit of Detroit Award, PoNY Fellowship, Sky-Cooper Prize, TEER Trailblazer Award, Steinberg Playwright Award, Audelco Awards, NBFT August Wilson Playwriting Award, Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama, OBIE Award (2), Ford Foundation Art of Change Fellowship, Variety’s Women of Impact for 2017-18, and a recent MacArthur Genius Grant Fellow.
The setting and characters of PIPELINE
Karen Pittman as Nya. Photo by Jeremy Daniel
Playwright Dominique Morisseau prefaces PIPELINE with the character descriptions and the note on the setting below. Notice that the playwright shares not just facts about the characters, like their race, sex, and age, but also a sense of who they are as people. And while we can imagine this story taking place in New York City, it can also be set in any number of big cities in the US.
Not necessarily NYC, but definitely modeled after it. Can be any inner city environment where the public school system is under duress. However, the quick pace of the language is NY-inspired and should be maintained in any setting. Present Day.
Also, we have Undefined Space. This is a place where location doesn’t matter. It is sometimes an alternate reality bleeding into reality. It is sometimes just isolated reality that doesn’t require a setting. Only words.
NYA - Black woman, mid-late 30's. Single mother. Public H.S. Teacher. Trying to raise her teenage son on her own with much difficulty. A good teacher inspiring her students in a stressed environment. A struggling parent doing her damndest. Strong but burning out. Smoker. Sometimes drinker. Holding together by a thread.
OMARI - Black man, late teens. Smart and astute. Rage without release. Tender and honest at his core. Something profoundly sensitive amidst the anger. Wrestling with his identity between private school education and being from a so-called urban community. Nya's son.
JASMINE - Black or Latina woman, late teens. Sensitive and tough. A sharp bite, a soft smile. Profoundly aware of herself and her environment. Attends upstate private school but from a so-called urban environment. In touch with the poetry of her own language.
XAVIER - Black man, mid-late 30's. Single father - struggling to connect to his own son. Marketing exec. Wounded relationship with his ex-wife. Financially stable. Emotionally impoverished. Nya's ex-husband. Omari's father.
LAURIE - White woman, 50's. Pistol of a woman. Teaches in Public High School and can hold her own against the tough students and the stressed environment. Doesn't bite her tongue. A don't-fuck-with-me chick.
DUN - Black man, early-mid 30's. Public High School security guard. Fit and optimistic. Charismatic with women. Genuine and thoughtful and trying to be a gentleman in a stressed environment. It's not easy.
How does the sound design help to tell the story in a play?
A sound designer is responsible for creating everything from sound effects, to music that gets played to transition from one scene to another, to any music that gets played during a scene. The sound design helps set the mood for the play and is one element that helps to engage the audience with the story. But the sound design also helps the actor in his or her work.
Sometimes sound design involves original music that has been composed specially for the production. Other times, sound design may involve existing songs or pieces of music. Justin Ellington, the award-winning sound designer for PIPELINE, is known for using contemporary music in his productions.
Watch Namir Smallwood, the actor who plays Omari, talk about how the sound design helped him to tell his character's story.
Synopsis of PIPELINE
Click the images for details
The play opens on Nya, talking into her cell phone. She is leaving a message for her ex-husband Xavier about an incident involving their son Omari at the private school he attends. We then see that Nya is in her public school classroom and that she is a teacher.
In the next scene, we meet Omari in his girlfriend Jasmine’s dorm room at their private school, where they talk about what will happen to them as a result of ‘the incident’. Omari is worried he might be thrown out of school – or even arrested. Jasmine is worried for him and also for their relationship. Omari confides that he is planning on running away.
In the teachers’ lounge back at her public school, Nya speaks with her fellow teacher Laurie, an older white woman who recently returned after recovering from a physical assault at school. They talk about the challenges of working with parents and school administrators to best help their students learn. They are joined by Dun, a school security guard who seems to have had a relationship with Nya. Nya doesn’t want to engage with him but bums a cigarette from him before she leaves.
In class, Nya talks to her students about Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “We Real Cool.” She asks them to examine the idea of kids getting in trouble - while hearing Omari recite the poem in her head. She is so worried about her son, she needs to step into the hall. Dun sees her and asks if she is alright, and she rebuffs him again.
Back in Jasmine’s dorm room, where she is on her cell talking to a friend from home about how she feels being a token student of color among so many privileged white kids. Nya is at the door looking for Omari, who has left school. At first, Jasmine challenges Nya about her relationship with Omari but she relents and shares all she knows – that he was probably heading to a train station nearby.
In the next scene, Nya is home, smoking in the dark when Omari comes home. They each try to explain themselves but they don’t understand each other. Nya is wracked with worry. She asks Omari to please tell her what he needs from her. He goes to make them both dinner.
The next day, Nya’s ex-husband Xavier goes to her classroom to talk about Omari and the incident at school. Nya is trying to explain what happened. Xavier thinks that Omari would do better if he stayed with Xavier and went to their local school. They argue about what they each think is best for their son – and about what broke them up in the first place. Nya gives in and they agree to try things Xavier’s way.
In the teachers’ lounge, Nya walks in on an argument between Laurie and Dun. There was another fight in Laurie’s classroom. She broke it up before Dun got there by hitting one of the kids. They are both upset and defeated. Nya’s mind turns to Omari and how he lashes out in anger. She spirals into a panic attack and collapses.
Dun is sitting with Omari in the hospital, awaiting word from the doctors about Nya, when Xavier arrives. Dun and Xavier have a tense exchange when they each realize who the other is to Nya. Dun leaves and the conflict arises between Xavier and Omari. Xavier wants Omari to respect him, but Omari resents his father’s absence. Omari finally explains what happened at school – and all his pent-up anger comes out. Xavier is defeated and he retreats. Omari is left on his own, waiting to hear about his mom.
The last scene takes place in ’undefined space’ – Jasmine leaves a long voicemail for Omari, letting him go. A student voice can be heard over the school PA, reciting ‘We Real Cool’. Nya addresses the disembodied school board, pleading Omari’s case, while Omari tells his mother that he is ready to take responsibility for his actions. Nya and Omari finally see and hear each other. Omari has come up with instructions, like Nya wanted. He reads them to her. And she listens.
Creative choices: the look, feel and sound of PIPELINE
The play PIPELINE takes place in the present day in settings that most of us are familiar with. Click on the pictures below to hear from the creative team behind PIPELINE.