When was the last time you saw a show that wasn't literally about you, yet was absolutely about you? When was the last time a play or musical got at something true about your own life?
For me, it happened last week, when I saw Dominique Morisseau's play "Pipeline" at Lincoln Center Theater.
First, a little background: My parents loved me wildly, and I was mostly a happy kid. The cold fact remained, however, that I was a gay teenager in southeast Tennessee, so nothing my parents did could stop me from experiencing the hatred of certain people in my town. They couldn't stop a teacher from casually commenting that medieval torturers "had the right idea" when they burned "sodomites" alive, and they couldn't stop a group of my so-called friends from reacting to my coming out by vandalizing our house.
When I saw "Pipeline", I realized how that must have made my parents feel.
Morocco Omari as Xavier and Namir Smallwood as Omari in “Pipeline” | By Jeremy Daniel
The play, which runs through August 27, follows Nya and Xavier, parents who feverishly love Omari, their only child. They've done their damndest to assure his success: They've taken him out of the rough public school where Nya teaches and put him in a private school instead. They've made sure he has money when he needs it. They've tried to remind him they support him.
But as the play makes clear, these advantages don't exempt Omari from being a young black man in the United States. His parents cannot shield him from the oppressive systems that send so many young black men in a pipeline from school to prison. Nya and Xavier cannot keep their son's mind and soul (and sometimes his body) from being assaulted by racism.
And so Omari gets in bad trouble at his good school. When Nya tries to understand why, his explanation has less to do with a particular teacher or classmate than with the lessons of his entire life.
I'm still shaken by what comes next. In a series of one-on-one scenes of operatic intensity, all three family members confront the blame, grief, and compassion this crisis provokes. Watching them face their feelings, I considered my own parents as they navigated their response to my sexuality. I saw them grappling with the dread their son would be rejected, tossed aside. I imagined them realizing they couldn't protect me from the hateful parts of the world. Just like Omari’s parents, I know mine always knew I’d get hurt by something eventually. That’s just part of being human. But that can’t have made their fear for my future any easier to confront.
Happily, my life turned out well, despite my exposure to prejudice, and “Pipeline” sounds a note of hope as well. But I keep returning to Nya and Xavier’s desperate attempts to stop the world from getting to their boy. Their struggle has recalibrated something in my relationship to my own family.
The play has touched Show-Score members as well. They've not only scored it with an 86, but also added incisive comments, like this one from Show-Score member Haynes: "Thank you Dominique Morisseau. Though none of the story was exactly my story, as an avid theatergoer I am glad to see characters that look and sound like me that made me laugh, cry and, yes, call out an 'ummm-hum' and snap my fingers several times."
Haynes speaks directly to my own experience: "Pipeline" isn’t precisely about me, but it speaks to me all the same.
I'd love to hear your thoughts on "Pipeline" or about ANY show that told your story this way. Let's start a conversation in the comments about the plays and musicals that have shown us a part of ourselves.
Want to see "Pipeline"? Put it on your Wishlist, and your Fairy Stage-Mother just might give you free tickets!