Teenagers are reading a poem in a classroom in the city. Their teacher, Nya, is challenging them to see the history in it, and the energy of revolution.
The words of the poem come clear and spare, like spoken word.
We real cool.
We left school. …
Gwendolyn Brooks wrote “The Pool Players — Seven at the Golden Shovel” in the 1960s. She was 42, widely known in a long career of writing and activism. She was a black woman writing at the center of the Freedom movements, read and loved across the country, winning national honors, and she is giving voice to young black men who are drinking gin in the middle of a weekday.
When Nya asks her students, “Who will they become?” she is thinking of her own son, Omari. And somewhere between his upstate private school and the city neighborhood where he grew up, he speaks the poem aloud and feels the words in his gut today.
They stand together at the center of Dominique Morisseau’s new play, Pipeline, one of the top 10 most produced plays in the country this year and an Obie winner in 2018. And WAM Theatre and Multicultural Bridge are partnering to bring it to the Berkshires.
They are working with director Dawn Meredith Simmons, a playwright and director in Boston for more than a decade with many theaters and performance groups, including the Front Porch Arts Collective, a new black-led theater company in Boston, founded when the city had been at least 10 years without one.
She has looked forward to working with this play, she said by phone from Boston, as she and the cast of actors from Boston and the Berkshires prepared for the opening.
Nya is a woman of her community, Simmons said. Nya teaches in an urban public school in the neighborhood where she lives.
“She wants to stay there, raise her son as a strong black man and give back to the community around them. … She loves him deeply. Her relationship with him is sacred.”
Nya’s ex-husband, Xavier, has pushed the decision to send their son to private school. Omari has been away from his family and friends, and pressures have built to breaking point.
And Nya is achingly afraid for him.
“She couldn’t make things work,” Simmons said, “and she is usually someone who can. She can impart knowledge and see students blossom and grow. Xavier used to be that kind of person, and he has changed, and they didn’t grow together.”
“Xavier is more a believer that a person is the product of their environment,” said Kevin Craig West, who plays him. “In his success he has lost himself in trying to assimilate.”
West took time to talk at the Bernstein theatre.
He and the cast were sharing dinner with Bridge and the Women of Color Color Giving Circle, and allies friends in the local black community, and in the energy of the tech rehearsal people were laughing, helping to hold a sleeping baby, getting an informal backstage tour and talking about bringing young people to the show.
West finds Omari’s story a familiar and sad reality.
“For those of us who have seen and experienced some of what the play talks about, it’s no shock,” he said. “It’s commonplace.”
He sees Omari, like many young black men, trying to prepare for life, against the forces and the injustices and the atrocities he faces.
For Omari, the weight of school and relationships bear down on a day when his class is reading Richard Wright’s Native Son and talking over the main character in the novel, a young black man growing up on the South Side of Chicago in the 1930s, trying to support his family under intense pressure.
Omari’s teacher pushes him to give his perspective. Omari tries to explain to his mother later: He’s not just talking about the text. He’s saying something underneath it. He won’t leave me alone. Provoking. Agitating.
He asks his teacher to respect his space. And his teacher will not listen to him.
“Omari is tokenized,” Simmons said. “He is othered in that moment. Many of us have been in that situation — watching other people get away with what we never could. Someone else can say that and it’s not a threat, and it’s respected. People in black bodies don’t get that care.”
Omari has stresses in his life that his teacher is not seeing, she said.
“What the teacher sees — many of us have been there — he sees an uppity black kid. He comes from a place of ‘let’s get this perspective in the room. Let’s talk.’”
But he is singling out Omari and pressuring him in a way he is not pressuring Omari’s classmates. And he is asking Omari what Bigger Thomas felt in a moment of extreme fear and rage, as though Omari should know.
“It’s a luxury people of color don’t have,” Simmons said, “to say ‘I don’t want to be the representative, and to step back.”
And when the conversation addresses violence, she said, it can be even harder to talk.
West finds communication and miscommunication as a theme running through the play. People are missing one another and not fully hearing, he said. The story is exploring relationships at the core, between Omari and his parents, teachers and students, and sometimes between people who are not actors but lift their voices in the story, like two young men in Nya’s classroom who get into a fight.
“Everyone has something that’s not being addressed.”
He feels the beauty of the writing. Morisseau draws on wonderful and sad metaphors, he said, like Omari comparing his girlfriend, Jasmine, to metamorphic rock.
“They change in form,” Omari says in the play. “Made from heat and pressure. That’s what makes ’em so rare and interesting.”
He captures a seismic tension in that image. And in that moment he and Jasmine are young, in love and deeply scared, and holding on to each other.