When you hear actor Namir Smallwood recite “We Real Cool” on the stage of Lincoln Center Theater’s Mitzi Newhouse it will shake you.
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
And that’s exactly playwright Dominique Morisseau’s intention with her latest work, Pipeline, currently playing Off-Broadway through August 27. While the poem by Gwendolyn Brooks was not the inspiration for her play, its recitation and repetition anchors her script about one young black man in the reality of so many.
For tickets to Pipeline at Lincoln Center Theater Off-Broadway, click here.
Her story follows Omari, a black student at a predominantly white prep school, and his single mother who teaches at the district public school. When Omari attacks his teacher, Nya’s fears for her son push her to the edge and force audiences to question who is truly at fault.
Driven to write a play about race in education, “We Real Cool” entered Morisseau’s writing organically. Still, it’s Smallwood’s reading as Omari that gives it the staying power to affect her audience into action.
“I’m a pole of the urgent question around us,” says Morisseau who pushes the audience to confront the school-to-prison pipeline, the expectations of young black men, “young black male rage and how that has been dehumanizing,” and the self-fulfilling prophecy reflected in the poem.
“That poem serves as the polar opposite to who Omari is, [but it’s] who he can become if he’s not careful,” Smallwood says of his character, and adds, “Had I not had the upbringing I had, I could have been one of these young men.”
“Omari saying that poem in the way that he’s saying it is like Nya’s worst fears for her son,” says Smallwood. “It’s also any black woman who has a son, who has a grandson, who has a nephew, who has a boyfriend, who has a husband—that’s their worst fear.”
It’s Morisseau’s fear, too. Inspired by Mike Brown and the many black men and boys killed by police in recent years, Morisseau uses her play to explore the total humanity of these people. “We really don’t see him as a boy, but he was 17,” says Morisseau of Brown. “When were talking about Omari’s character and casting it … [I said] ‘I don’t want him to look like a little boy up there because that’s not going to help us. He needs to look like what everybody is afraid of.’”
In examining Omari as a whole person, that includes his rage. “We think about rage as being criminal,” she says. “There’s such a thing as righteous rage. I think that we never talk about rage that is earned and deserves to be expressed.”
Morisseau crafts a compelling portrayal of Omari’s frustration and Nya’s anxiety and suggests ways to escape the cycle of the system. She wants to start “engaging young people in their own salvation,” she says. A teacher, Morisseau speaks from experience, “When I’ve asked students and young people, ‘What can we do for you?’ [and] I’m truly invested in the answer to that question, they are, too.”
And she plants this kernel in an interaction between Nya and Omari. “It’s a moment of pain and desperation in the story when Nya begs for instructions [from her son about how to help him], but there is another moment of liberation when he comes back and gives her instructions.”
While Pipeline doesn’t provide instructions for audiences to solve the “have and have-not” ecosystem of American education, Morisseau hopes her suggestions begin a conversation in her audience of educators, non-educators, and youth while she has them in the same room. Or at the very least, when Omari struggles for air during one recitation of the poem—“We Die [gasp] Die [gasp] Die”—she hopes there is an understanding of the life-and-death stakes of his situation—our situation.
“I will tell anybody that Dominique, the way her writing is, all you have to do is show up and tell the truth because she does the work for you,” says Smallwood.
Yet Morisseau credits Smallwood with the impact of her words. “You find an actor like him once in a blue moon,” she says. “From the first time I ever worked on [the play] with Namir, that was part of our conversation around how to do that [poem].”
With the way the poem lingers with audiences, Morisseau and Smallwood may have created a starting point to change our ending.