Detroit born and raised Dominique Morisseau is perhaps best known as a writer for the criminally under-recognized (I am looking at you Emmys and Golden Globes) comedy-drama “Shameless” on Showtime. A graduate of top-rated University of Michigan, Morisseau started out as an actress but is also a veteran award-winning playwright who has won the distinguished Primus Prize, Chambers Playwriting Award, two NAACP Image Awards, an Obie and the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama. Morisseau’s fans love her unvarnished social media commentary in which she bravely tackles issues of inclusion and representation in theater and television, such as the recent dust-up over the all Black version of the Edward Albee classic “Who’s
Afraid of Virginia Wolf?”
On the subject she said, “I don’t think you’re gonna solve the issue of diversity in theater without discussing whose work is going to be produced. Otherwise we’re asking white writers to do the work for everybody. We’re asking white writers to understand everybody’s culture. And we’re asking for nonspecific characters, nonspecific cultures so that we can plug people in as needed, and that’s not gonna make great art.”
Though busy in the Los Angeles “Shameless” writing room working on the upcoming eightth season of “Shameless,” her play “Pipeline” is currently running at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theater. “Pipeline” is set against a backdrop of contrasting sets, one in an urban public high school and the other in a tony upstate boarding school. “In a general sense [it’s] about the school to prison pipeline,” Morisseau said about they play, “but it’s about a single mother who teaches at a public high school in a city based off of New York. Her son goes to private school upstate, and a controversial incident happens at her son’s private school that threatens him with expulsion and criminal charges. It’s about her journey and her son’s journey into understanding her son and trying to figure out what went wrong and how she can save him from the school to prison pipeline.”
To complicate matters, the mother, Nya, is also divorced from her son Omari’s father. Morisseau continued, “We’re also looking at what co-parenting means to two parents who are not in a relationship. And what some of the breakdown of that relationship, how that impacts the son.”
Morisseau, whose literary influences include Alice Childress, George Wolf, August Wilson and Ntozake Shange, is intimately familiar with the subject matter. “I taught in New York for more than 10 years in public high schools,” she explained. “I have also been a full-time teacher in Detroit in Highland Park. Teaching has been part of my fabric for 20 years plus. With regard to the world of public education versus private education, what inspired me were articles I read and documentaries that I watched on education. It’s all of those things, but most of the research comes from my own experience.”
Teaching, it seems, runs in the family. “My mother was a teacher for 40 years, so observing her was a factor as well,” said Morisseau.
Although the challenges African-American young men face get the bulk of attention from media, there is a growing awareness of the many ways young African-American women face issues that are just as harmful in the academic environment. They are seen as being more adult than their white and Asian peers, are often punished for wearing certain hairstyles, are reprimanded more harshly and are suspended and expelled at higher rates. Asked why as a woman she decided to write a play with a male main character Morisseau explained, “It is inspired by personal events in my life that involved a young Black man. I think even though the play is told through the eyes of a young Black man, there is a character of his girlfriend who is a young Latina woman, and I wanted to give the perspective of a young man of color and a young woman of color who are both navigating private school. There is a place in the story where the girlfriend, Jasmine, goes on ad nauseum about her experience being the poor girl of color in private school.”
Namir Smallwood plays Omari and Heather Velasquez plays Jasmine. Both give powerful, moving performances. Smallwood is enthralling as the resentful and angry son and student. Velazquez’ charisma and comic timing are notable. Morocco Omari and Karen Pittman as Omari’s hapless parents provide a searing portrait of adults who are well-meaning but whose own limited emotional reach keep them from sufficiently connecting with and supporting their son.
“Pipeline,” although it has a slight bias toward the public school system as the best means of providing a holistic education to students of color, indicts both public and private school systems. Morisseau discussed the dialogue she had about the issue with the play’s director, Liliana Blain-Cruz. “She said we are looking at two kinds of failures in education,” said Morisseau. “In the public school, we are looking at structural failure, and in the private school we are looking at cultural failure. So we’re looking at how not making space for these people to bring their full selves, their community, their cultural background, their culture to this new environment means we are failing them somewhere. They might graduate and go on to college, but they’ve lost some part of themselves that if it isn’t taken care of could be self-destructive for them.”