Brock’s Walker Cultural Leaders Series and the St. Catharines-based theatre company Suitcase in Point co-sponsored a series of events on equity, inclusion and diversity Nov. 9-10. Events included a include a staged reading of Pipeline, a 2017 play by Dominique Morisseau, the title of which refers to the widespread perception of a school-to-prison pipeline for young African American men. Read about the event in Brock News.
Brock Dramatic Arts student critic Alexandra Chubaty Boychuk wrote this piece in the lead up to the event, Pipeline to a Better Way. This article originally appeared on DARTCritics Nov. 5.
“The broad thematic strokes of race, power, and privilege aren’t just contained within the walls of the institution; it’s happening in the professional arts community too. If honest conversations are had in the community, with the intention of learning and creating safer spaces for everyone, then we can prevent situations – like the inciting incident of Pipeline – from happening in real life.”
These are the thoughts of Suitcase in Point’s outreach coordinator Marcel Stewart on why the St. Catharines-based theatre company teamed up with Brock University to produce a staged reading of Pipeline, a 2017 play by Dominique Morisseau, the title of which refers to the widespread perception of a school-to-prison pipeline for young African-American men. The reading is part of a two-day series of events called Pipeline to a Better Way, which also includes community discussions around power, privilege, race and theatre in Niagara; and a keynote address by Ravi Jain, one of the most dynamic fiures in Canadian theatre, about innovation and leadership.
The questions these events are raising are very important, but they’re hard, and personally challenging for me. I still don’t have the confidence or the knowledge to know what to say or what to do. I’m a white woman – where is my voice in this? Should I even have a voice in this, or is it not my place? How can I make a difference without perpetuating the problematic narrative of the “white saviour”? This weekend may not be able to answer those questions, but at the very least we can start discussing things that, frankly, many of us have been too afraid to talk about.
That’s where we need to start – with an awareness of the issues going on around us and an openness to having those conversations. And audience members will get a chance to ask questions – at a forum and panel discussion with artists in the St. Catharines’ community on Saturday November 9, as well as a talkback and Q&A on the 10th with Cox, Jain, and cast and creative team members of the Pipeline reading.
DART assistant professor Danielle Wilson is spearheading the event, which grew out of her interest in Morrisseau’s play and her awareness that it would be difficult to stage at DART, because it requires actors of evidently different generations, but also because the student population is mostly white. “I was interested in presenting a play about a specific population that is not often represented on stage in our department or our community,” says Wilson. “The Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts is a place of both learning and artistic creation and I felt the play was a perfect fit as part of the Walker Cultural Leaders series.”
Pipeline is the story of a young Black teacher’s struggle to protect her son, Omari, after he assaults his high school teacher for aggressively singling him out to answer why a book character behaved like an “animal” and murdered a woman. Omari believes he was being asked to be the teacher’s “token responder,” and that there was a more racializing subtext beneath the teacher’s request. This spirals into a story of heartbreak, love, loss, the struggles of parenthood, and the struggles of the Black community.
The staged reading at Brock is being directed by Toronto-based actor, director, and producer Lisa Karen Cox, and features a cast largely made up of seasoned and emerging professional actors, with Brock students also participating onstage and behind the scenes. Of the six-person cast, five are people of colour.
Cox explains that to her, the play is about “the trauma of exclusion and ‘othering,’” especially as it relates to Black individuals: “All of the characters are suffering from feeling helpless, hopeless and exhausted,” says Cox. “While their exhaustion is palpable, so is their fight to not to be helpless and hopeless; their fight to remain afloat. It is the fight that many groups of people may feel – but as a Black mother myself, there is a specific… pressure faced by Black people, by Black mothers, especially in the United States, where this play was written; but also here, in Canada. Our Black boys are graduating at lower rates than the rest of the population; the expulsion and suspension rates they are facing is higher than the rest of the population. How do we ensure that our Black boys are successful? Well, we can start by ensuring that they receive the same compassionate treatment as everyone else. We are often driven to protect our babies out of fear, but how do you protect your baby from the system?”
In a separate conversation, I asked Ravi Jain what we can expect from his keynote address around these questions about race, exclusion, and power. Jain is the artistic director of Why Not Theatre He is nominated for the 2019 Siminovich Prize for excellence and innovation in Canadian theatre directing, and is currently co-adapting and directing a co-production of The Mahabharata for the Shaw Festival’s 2020 season.
Jain promises that his address (for which there will be ASL translation) wis not going to be a lecture about how we’re failing as a theatrical community to represent people of various backgrounds, but rather assert that different perspectives are what make art interesting.
“I’m not here to be your dad and I’m not here to tell you what you’re doing wrong,” says Jain. “I’ll tell you that your art is crap… art isn’t interesting if it doesn’t have a spectrum of experience or perspectives. That’s where I’m coming from. Not just, ‘make that person black, make that person brown, make that a woman, make that a person with different abilities and now we can be proud of ourselves that we’re OK, in the eyes of God.’”
Although the terms “equity, diversity, and inclusion” are popping up more and more in discussions around theatre and culture more broadly, Jain is not a fan: “I’m not interested in using those words anymore… The words are really meaningless. You either do it or you don’t, and how you do it demonstrates to me how invested you actually are in the conversation. You’ve just got to read shit, you got to look around, you got to wake up to what’s happening and you’re either a part of that change or you’re the thing in its way.”
Terms he likes better are “innovation” and “future”: “Why do you ask Ravi to come and talk about equity, diversity, and inclusion? Why do you not come and talk to him about innovation, and the future of Canadian theatre? They have a very different sound to them. One is broccoli, and one is chocolate cake… Innovator is meaningful. Future of theatre is meaningful.”
An event like this – broaching such culturally hot topics and putting them into dialogue with an important contemporary play that treats those topics, involving our university population and the professional arts community – puts DART’s praxis philosophy into practice. It’s the first thing that happened like it in my knowledge of the Marilyn I. Walker School. Students, faculty and staff, and audience members will have the opportunity to engage with innovators and leaders in Canadian theatre who are also people of colour. As Jain says, it’s itally important to be aware of different perspectives and experiences. I encourage you to seize this opportunity to ask questions, gain awareness, get educated, and be a part of the future of Canadian theatre.