Dominique Morisseau is an actor, educator, and writer. She grew up in Detroit, received a BFA in acting from the University of Michigan, and now divides her time between Los Angeles, where she writes for the Showtime series “Shameless,” and New York, where her three-play cycle about Detroit – Detroit ’67, Paradise Blue, and Skeleton Crew – was developed and received wide acclaim. I spoke with her the other day before a rehearsal of Pipeline, which will soon have its world premiere in LCT’s Mitzi E. Newhouse.
Brendan Lemon: Pipeline tells the story of Omari, an African-American teenage boy, who is facing difficulty at his private school in upstate New York. You have said that you feel an urgent need to tell this story. Why?
Dominique Morisseau: I’m an educator, and I was once a full-time educator, so the topic of the play is important to me because of personal experience. Also, Omari represents so many young men in schools, public and private, who are trying to navigate their emotions. That’s a very important issue for me – allowing African-American boys and teenagers to have a full exploration of their humanity. Especially at a moment in our nation when they have a lot of social vulnerability and fragility.
BL: The play touches on the issue of public employees who send their children to private schools.
DM: The question of schooling is partly about parenting, so the play looks at co-parenting: what it means to have one parent very committed to public-school education and one parent not to be -- how they negotiate that and who wins. Omari’s father pushes the idea of private-school education and his mother agreed, even though she’s a public-school educator. I myself went to public school in Detroit, and my mother taught in Highland Park, which is a sub-city inside Detroit. I call it a third-world city in our country. So she’s teaching in a very economically stressed city and sending me to school in the city we live in. But I went to a very specialized school.
BL: In the play, there is a discussion between Omari’s parents about switching him from private school to his mother’s public school. She says: he’ll be okay. There are some really good teachers at my school.
DM: I don’t think that anyone who works in any field could say that the field is flawless. I suspect that most public-school teachers think that there’s a problem with public schools. And I think most teachers or parents think their children have a better shot at success if they have the best teachers in any given school.
Nya, the mother in the play, thought she was already giving her son an education in one of the best schools she could get him into. And yet he’s still struggling. One of the reasons he’s struggling has to do with the compartmentalizing of young people – the idea that if you address one part of their lives you will automatically solve their entire future. People are much more complicated that that.
BL: Omari can’t articulate to himself what he’s feeling about his situation. He doesn’t quite have the words for it. That’s part of the drama.
DM: I don’t have all the words, either. I don’t profess to have an answer I’m withholding from an audience. I profess to be working this out publicly. In public schools, we often see infrastructural failures. In private schools, we see cultural failures -- a lack of understanding about barriers related to a student’s background. Cultural bias is hard to solidify and pin down. I want to give voice to that issue. As an actor, I was once part of project with NYU law students, to educate them about real-life situations. One of the roles I had to play concerned why I felt someone was discriminating against me. I realized how ridiculously hard it is to prove cultural bias, because the courts tend to deal mostly with tangible things. Yet human beings know when they’ve been culturally violated. How do you concretize that kind of experience? Omari is trying to concretize something that even in law is difficult to pinpoint. He is as inarticulate as NYU law students are around this issue.
BL: Understanding Omari’s experience takes time.
DM: You have to be willing to listen and understand students’ explanations. We often don’t trust young people to be the experts on their own experience.
BL: You’ve written several plays about Detroit. This one is about New York. Do you see any differences between the settings?
DM: Even though the style of the play is much more New York, many of my inspirations were things that happened in the schools and in the media in Detroit. They are what I’m reacting to. I’ve taught in both Michigan and in New York, but I’ve spent the larger part of my education career in New York public schools. There’s both crossover and difference. In New York, for example, I’ve always been struck by the claustrophobia of the staircases in the public schools. Where I went to high school in Detroit, the staircases were much more open. In New York they are almost like a separate space. When I enter them, I think: all hell could be happening here. But you have stressful environments in both cities.
BL: One of the crossovers is the correlation between housing and public education. Just this month, the mayor of New York, Bill DiBlasio, was asked why NYC public schools remain so deeply segregated. He answered that in large part it’s a function of housing.
DM: It doesn’t surprise me that the mayor sees them as inextricable. Education and housing are where I have seen with my own eyes the worst forms of segregation.
BL: Pipeline explores the ways that education involves much more than what goes on in the classroom.
DM: The theme of the play is the total humanity of the student. One view of learning is: the teacher stands in front of the class, imparts knowledge, tells the students to write it down and feed it back. But that approach doesn’t look at emotional well-being. And that is a huge part of being able to absorb information and take part in class discussion.
Here’s something else that sparked Pipeline. In my mother’s public school, there was a hat policy – you always had to take it off in class. My mom had a third grader who one day kept his hat on. She sensed that he had a bad haircut – or that something wasn’t great that day about his hair. So she let him keep his hat on, because he was going to be embarrassed and ridiculed by other kids. She had to ask herself: will he learn better that day with the hat off or on? A system that isn’t looking at whole human beings will enforce policy and that’s it. But there has to be room for expertise to trump policy. In my play, I try to present Omari as a total human being and not reduce him to a single act on a bad day.
BL: But once someone causes harm that person becomes hard to defend. Harm trumps everything.
DM: But the harm caused to them never seems to trump anything. If we can prevent people from suffering harm then we can help prevent them from causing harm. Any educator who doesn’t look at something in that way is an educator I’m concerned about.
BL: The Gwendolyn Brooks poem “We Real Cool” figures importantly in Pipeline. Was she an important writer for you growing up?
DM: She’s a Chicago writer but she was published by Broadside Press, an African-American publisher in Detroit, before she was published by HarperCollins. I have a Broadside anthology that I won in first grade, as a prize in an MLK essay contest. Miss Gwendolyn Brooks was one of the poets in that anthology. I’ve told the Pipeline cast about the particular incident that made me choose the poem. When I was in eighth grade the boys had to perform “We Real Cool” at our Black History Pageant. I had to perform Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise,” and I wanted to perform it as well as the boys did theirs. The way those boys performed that poem has stayed with me for the rest of my life. They were so good. At age 13 or 14 they understood the flip that happens in the poem. And that used to haunt me. I’ve taught that poem to teenagers. There’s some kind of ancestral power in it when I see it written. I used to write it on the board when I walked into a classroom and just let it live there. It’s magic to me.
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.