There is a growing base of scientific evidence that suggests facts do not change hearts and minds. Facts and statistics make people’s eyes glaze over.
So if you read “The New Jim Crow” and are concerned about the school-to-prison pipeline, it probably doesn’t matter that you can rattle off a stack of stats about the disproportionate way black children are punished in schools, or how this lands many of them in prison.
That scientific evidence also shows the way to melt hard hearts and thereby open minds is by telling stories about people or, when possible, introducing them to people who are affected by the issues.
Meet Omari (Cecil Blutcher), the young black man at the center of Dominique Morisseau’s “Pipeline,” now in production at Actors Theatre of Louisville.
Omari comes from a place of relative privilege. Both of his parents are still in his life, they are both employed, he never wants for money, and he is enrolled in the kind of high-society private school that can set him on the path to being a titan of business or a senator.
So why does Omari, before the events of “Pipeline” even begin, commit an act of violence that so terrifies his mother Nya (Patrese D. McClain), it sets her on a quest to save him from his actions and hopefully come to understand what it is inside of him that could explode in such a life-altering way?
This is the meat of the drama, and that drama is the best possible kind. Everyone in “Pipeline” wants the same thing — they want to connect to each other, to teach, learn and love. In essence, they all just want to be good, happy people.
There are no false adversarial plot points, because in reality, none are needed. These people are up against their emotional limitations and against the intractable system that surrounds them.
That system — institutional racism in general — and the school-to-prison pipeline are present in every moment of the play. One hopes that great reams of articles and opinion pieces already are being written about this incredible script, peeling back the layers of meaning one character and scene at a time to unveil its semiotics and statements about institutional racism and racial dynamics.
Fitting that all in one play is amazing, but what’s more amazing is that “Pipeline” never tells us about racism, it shows us.
McClain and Blutcher are excellent and equally balanced. McClain’s Nya is an emotional wreck from the first page; she has zero chill. She establishes and sustains a very heightened emotional state and, from there, creates levels above and below so that while she has no patience or ability to calm down, she still has a varied and nuanced performance.
On the other end of the spectrum, Blutcher’s Omari refuses to feel anything or show any feelings, but he so clearly establishes his dead-eyed cool kid persona that thereafter, a slight change is immediately registered by the audience.
This allows the audience to see every missed connection between Omari and the many characters he encounters. There are moments when — to Omari’s sense of the world — he is laying his soul bare, but the people around him can still only see the dead eyes.
Frankly, it’s agonizing to watch Omari reach out, because it is so clearly agony for him, and each time he reaches out, the adults in his life so completely miss their opportunities to help him.
Nya, in turn, reaches out to Omari, but she can’t do it in such a way that he is able to accept her overtures.
Do note, this play also is yell-at-the-stage funny in many places, and in a pre-show note read to the audience, Morisseau encourages the audience to do just that. That note hints at a whole other side of institutional racism and asks which cultural institutions really welcome which cultures.
The other four members of the “Pipeline” ensemble are clicking along just as adroitly as the main characters, and each travels their own very active and fulfilling dramatic arc — with their own moments of crisis and revelation.
When stripped of political statements, “Pipeline” is a universally recognizable drama about people who cannot connect and how the lack of connection distills and intensifies their fears and pains until they explode.
But why on earth would anyone strip this play of political overtones? “Pipeline” is the human face of fact-laden scholarly works like “The New Jim Crow.”
Hopefully college curriculums are being written that teach “Pipeline” right alongside that book, because in order to dismantle the titular pipeline, we do need to understand the history behind it, but more importantly we must experience the humanity.
“Pipeline” continues at Actors Theatre through Feb. 2. Tickets start at $25.