Central Square Theater, Cambridge, MA
In November 2019, I received an e-mail from Lee Mikeska Gardner, Artistic Director of The Nora Theatre Company in Cambridge, MA. Gardner invited me to participate in a “Central Conversation” following a performance of their co-production (with WAM Theatre) of Dominique Morisseau’s Pipeline. I agreed. We selected Thursday, March 12, three days after opening night for what would essentially be a talkback. I had no inkling then that Pipeline would be the last play I would see before a global pandemic-shuttered theatres for more than a year. In November 2019, the world-at-large had not yet been alerted to the dangers of Covid-19. However, five months later when I walked into the reportedly sold-out performance at the Central Square Theater and saw fewer than two dozen people assembled, I knew that the future of live performance was in jeopardy. Three days later, the state required all theatres to close.
Admittedly, I hoped that the “conversation” would be canceled. It wasn’t. I entered a quiet, mostly empty lobby. There was a palpable nervous energy among ushers and production staff. It wasn’t pre-show jitters, but a fear that the show would be shut down. Audience members scattered themselves throughout the theatre. I had a row all to myself. Others had entire sections. Although I have experienced plenty of sparsely attended productions in my life, the Pipeline audience distribution was my first experience with what I now recognize as “social distancing.”
Following the governor’s directive to end large public gatherings, Pipeline joined the first wave of professional theatres to pivot to online streaming. Audience members were encouraged to “pay-what-you-can” to access a recorded performance while being steered to a series of suggested donation levels from “friend” ($10) to “angel” ($200). The urgency of the donation and the potential threat of the pandemic on the arts were relayed by the production team: “Know that [End Page 42] your purchase of this pre-recorded video stream event will help sustain Central Square Theater artists and staff while we are dark.”
Pipeline proved prescient not only in the ways it revealed how institutions and audiences would operate in the throes of a pandemic, but also in the manner it placed a spotlight on racism within societal systems. Its title refers to the school-to-prison pipeline, “the confluence of education policies in under-resourced public schools and a predominantly punitive juvenile system that . . . drastically increases the likelihood that [at-risk] children will end up with a criminal record rather than a high school diploma.”1 Pipeline centers on Omari, a high school student at a private college preparatory school, and Nya, his mother who teaches at a public school. There’s an undercurrent of racism and elitism which makes it difficult for Omari to fit in. He feels the weight of being assumed to represent all Black people and being subjected to the stereotypical ideas of blackness held by others including his teachers. It is his frustration at his life situation which leads to a key offstage action: Omari shoves a teacher, an act which could result in suspension and being charged with a crime. In Nya’s school, the teachers (in their break room) share stories about school fights but also about inadequate staffing as well as poor mental health counseling which impairs the life chances of their students. The systemic problems are so great across schools that Nya, speaking about her son, laments, “It doesn’t matter where I send him to school, nothing’s working! He’s being sucked into this void and I keep trying to hold onto him, but the force is so strong . . . that I have to . . . [h]old on firm or I’ll lose my grip.” The void is prison or, perhaps, death at the hands of law enforcement.
Ed Siegel, reviewing the production for WBUR (public radio), critiqued Pipeline for its politics and asserted, “there’s still an obligation [for playwrights] to not let agendas—whether they be community-building or political postulating—get in the way of storytelling.”2 Whereas Siegel...