Photo depicting Omari and Dun seated on a school bench. Chalked text is written on the floor beneath their feet.

Now Showing at Seattle Public Theater, ‘Pipeline’ Explores the School-to-Prison Pipeline

by Amanda Ong

On March 11, Pipeline, a play about the school-to-prison pipeline, premiered at the Seattle Public Theater. Through the lens of one African American family, Pipeline looks at the policies and practices that force students on a path from schools into systems of incarceration, which disproportionately affects marginalized students. 

From March 11 to April 3, the play Pipeline will be showing at the Seattle Public Theater. The playwright, Dominique Morisseau, is a nationally recognized, Tony-award-winning playwright and MacArthur Genius Grant Fellow. At the core of the story is Nya, a public school teacher and mother, divorced and raising her high-school-aged son, Omari. When Omari acts out at school and is threatened with expulsion, Nya becomes concerned he will become a victim of the school-to-prison pipeline system that affects mostly People of Color. 

“The playwright endeavors to humanize this family and this struggle,” said director Faith Bennett Russell, in an interview with the South Seattle Emerald. “These teenagers of color tend to be seen as a threat, a menace that needs to be tamed and controlled, and they’re not seen as human children. They really are children who, for whatever reason, need some support. They’re not criminals — they’re criminalized. And this story endeavors to humanize this journey of this young man who is in the in-between of either succeeding or being flushed down the pipeline.”

Bennett Russell is an activist for racial and social justice. While some people do marches and some people hold rallies, Bennett Russell writes and directs as her way to be an agent of change. On a personal level, she is committed to the issues that influence and create the school-to-prison pipeline and emphasizes the importance of the play through that lens. 

“[Pipeline] shows the plight of the school system,” Bennett Russell said. “[Schools] are not trained to deal with these kinds of students, their backgrounds, what they come in [with], and what they’re carrying. The teachers aren’t supported, so the kids aren’t supported.”

As a Black mother of an autistic son, the issues of the school system are something with which Bennett Russell is deeply, and unfortunately, familiar. 

“I wrote in my director notes that I would get calls when [my son] was in high school,” Bennett Russell said. “They wanted me to come take care of certain behaviors, because they just didn’t feel comfortable. So I’d have to come down and facilitate. And nine out of 10 times, they were like, ‘Oh, we handled that. We just don’t know why we got so nervous.’ Well, why they got so nervous — he’s a big Black guy. You want him to do something, he is resisting, he has no verbal skills. So he has to use his body. And that scared them.”

Tre Scott as Omari (left) and Dedra Woods as Nya (right), a teacher and mother of Omari in “Pipeline.” (Photo: Truman Buffett)

The effects of the school-to-pipeline system are evident in some of the national events of the past few years that led to current prison abolition and Black-led social justice movements. Bennett Russell points out that when Trayvon Martin was murdered by George Zimmerman 10 years ago in what became a nationally publicized case, he had been suspended for 10 days from school for having residue of marijuana in his backpack. While he was suspended, he had been spending time around his neighborhood, encountered Zimmerman, and was murdered. 

“He was already in the pipeline before he died, and we don’t see the correlation between the outcome of students when they’re put into the system,” Bennett Russell said. “And I think it’s important, especially post George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, that we stop and humanize these people in these stories and see how we got to where we got to … it’s very important, we don’t realize the power that it plays in the systemic oppression of the global majority.”

Pipeline was supposed to go up around this time two years ago but was canceled when the pandemic hit. Bennett Russell feels lucky this show was given another chance as pandemic restrictions lift, unlike many others. She also had to consider how Pipeline would look different two years later after people’s experiences of the pandemic, the associated lockdowns, at-home to in-person public school teaching, federal administration changes, and the latest iteration of the Black Lives Matter movement following the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor. Life had changed, and Bennett Russell chose to now frame Pipeline in the present day in quarantine, implementing masks and bringing up issues of in-person schooling. It impacted people’s relationships to the school system and to awareness of injustice, as well as the urgency around changing them.

“As a director, I was looking for the urgency for justice, equity, to be heard, to be seen, to have value,” Bennett Russell said. “As a director, those were the things that are already in the story that are so much more important today.” 

Bennett Russell also strived to “put skin and bones on the characters.” She made it a point that these characters should not be stereotypes and should be well fleshed out and developed. This, in itself, is a key part of fighting the issues of the school-to-prison pipeline and misconceptions and stereotypes about Black children. 

“Two years ago, there was an interview that came out of Seattle Public Schools, and it was around minorities and such, saying that [people] saw students of color, especially Black students, as less innocent than their white counterparts,” Bennett Russell said. “They couldn’t attest to why, but they just thought they were harder and less innocent. And if you see a student a certain way, your bias is going to have you treat them a certain way.”

Having grown up in the South End herself from the age of 14, Bennett Russell is particularly aware of why Seattle should be prepared to combat these issues in the school system. Her father was a pastor who had a church on Martin Luther King Jr. Way. But gentrification has changed Seattle, one reason that makes it all of the more important to gain awareness of the school-to-prison pipeline and its disproportionate effect on Black communities. 

“I think like, Seattle, we’re supposedly a liberal city. They think we’re fine. We’re not fine,” Bennett Russell said. “Growing up, our church was right in the [Central District (CD)], right? It was so much more Black. I mean, gentrification is real. I don’t recognize the CD anymore. And I feel like it’s just creeping, gentrification is creeping in those neighborhoods, where that keeps changing and changing and changing.”

However, through storytelling, things can change, Bennett Russell says. We can hopefully create greater accountability, check our biases, and move BIPOC folks into more leadership roles, especially as teachers and administrators.

“Theater is transformative, it helps the actor and the audience to find out where they fit. There’s magic in it,” Bennett Russell said. As a Black teenager moving from Brooklyn to Renton in the late 1970s, she found her voice through the theater department, a voice that she has followed in her acting and activism, and to Pipeline.

“That’s the power of story — it transforms, it changes minds, it illuminates,” Bennett Russell said. “It is a conduit to forgiveness and understanding … There wouldn’t be art in any form if we didn’t care to express our story in our journey. When we share, we share our humanity and our humaneness — it’s an open door to empathy. It’s an open door for change.”

Pipeline is running at the Seattle Public Theater at 7312 West Green Lake Drive North from March 11 to April 3. Tickets are available for purchase at the Seattle Public Theater website.

Amanda Ong (she/her) is a Chinese American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate at the University of Washington Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in creative writing and ethnicity and race studies.

📸 Featured Image: Tre Scott as Omari (left) and Andrew Lee Creech as Dun (right) in the Seattle Public Theater production of “Pipeline.” (Photo: Truman Buffett)

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