PIPELINE: Why this play? Why here? Why now?

PIPELINE: Why this play? Why here? Why now?

by Talya Kingston & Kristen van Ginhoven

Why this play? In some ways the answer to these questions is simple – we fell in love with Dominique Morisseau’s beautifully rendered characters and poetic, deeply theatrical, language.  After first reading the script, Talya deemed the central character of Nya, the most complete portrait of a mother that she’d ever come across in a play, and an important portrait of a black mother dealing with insidious institutional racism in this country that is too often unseen or disregarded by white Americans. Kristen’s commitment to PIPELINE was cemented after witnessing the powerful Fresh Takes reading of the play (also directed by Dawn Simmons) and the important audience dialogue that it provoked at The Clark Art Institute last year.  

Director Dawn Simmons and the cast of our 2018 Fresh Takes Reading of PIPELINE at The Clark engage in a talk back with the audience. (Photo by David Dashiell)

But before we announced the play as part of our season, we had to ensure that (to butcher the Hippocratic Oath) we were first going to do no harm.  We are aware of (and have participated in the past in) the dangerous mis-steps that are made by well-intentioned, white-run theatres across the country who program without building relationships with local people of color or giving due thought to issues that could arise, from: how an acting company comprised mostly of people of color would be welcomed into the town, to the extra (free) emotional work expected of these same actors facilitating audience talk-backs with primarily white audience members who may get defensive or even say (unintentionally) racist things to the actors. Going forward, our process required thoughtful, intentional action to avoid these harmful mis-steps.

So we turned to our previous collaborators Multicultural BRIDGE, an organization that (as most of you will already know) has been doing vital work building connections and understanding between diverse communities in the Berkshires for over a decade.  We invited Gwendolyn VanSant, BRIDGE’s CEO, to the WAM office for a private reading of PIPELINE, in order to solicit her opinion about the play. We asked her if she thought it would be of service to BRIDGE’s established cultural competency work in the county. If not we were prepared to walk away from the play.  Happily for us, the answer was a resounding yes, and BRIDGE agreed to come onboard as a partner.  

As our partner on this production, BRIDGE has been consulted at every turn – from the poster image, to the auditions, and on through rehearsals. (Ah, the potentially racist and sexist problems of theatrical auditions could be a blog post in itself!).  BRIDGE and WAM have also engaged in a series of retreats and trainings together throughout the year. These retreats helped build trust between WAM and BRIDGE, giving us the time and space to get to know each other with radical honesty and build thoughtful and intentional programming.

WAM and BRIDGE PIPELINE Team members on retreat in beautiful Gloucester, MA, in August.

We are not presenting this play simply because it is an award winning play by a MacArthur Genius playwright that has done well in New York. As a theatre company, WAM has to step into it’s activism and do things differently (our audiences would expect no less!)  The last election cycle catapulted us solidly into the role of civic organization. WAM is blooming. We remain an organization that creates theatre for everyone that benefits women and girls and we are now also a civic organization that creates theatre for gender equity. As an organization that embraces intersectional feminism (feminism that acknowledges multiple forms of discrimination impacted by white privilege, capitalism and heteronormativity as well as the patriarchy), we understand that to address one spoke of systemic discrimination (women’s issues) means we have to address them all. Ensuring that our productions do not just feature white, straight women as protagonists or white playwrights as their authors, is one way of doing that.

Why here? Why now? Dominique Morisseau set her play in New York and it would be tempting to see the play as a problem of some place else, or of someone else.  But through our work with BRIDGE we continue to learn about disturbing issues of racial bias and racist incidents in our own schools. There are also more systemic problems stemming from the fact that approximately 92 percent of Pittsfield’s teaching positions are filled by white teachers, while more than 30% of student population is non-white. (IBerkshires, May, 2019). According to the 2015-2016 Department of Elementary and Secondary Education student discipline data report, the suspension rate in Massachusetts for African American/black students (9.3%, compared 9% in 2014-15) was more than three times that of white students (2.7%, the same as in 2014-15), and the rate for Hispanic/Latino students (7.7%, compared to 7.4% in 2014-15) was more than twice the rate of white students. For these statistics to change, it is integral for our educators and community leaders to become more aware of the societal and race factors that may affect performance and punishment of non-white school students. Theatre has proven time and time again to be a powerful tool for recognition of oppression. WAM and BRIDGE believe that PIPELINE is a great example of the kind of play that can elicit empathy and empowerment. 

We have learned so much from our year-long cultural competency work with BRIDGE.  Perhaps the most important lesson is that the work begins internally – it’s not enough to simply make an anti-discrimination statement and then point to that as evidence of the company’s activism.  Activism is active and it’s on-going: a life-long journey. This evolution is an ongoing process for the WAM staff and board. We, and the rest of our WAMily, all continue to have personal, professional and political experiences that continue to shape the WAM mission and vision. 

We are also lucky in that PIPELINE is a co-production with The Nora at Central Square Theatre in Boston. It will run there in March of 2020. Stay tuned to hear more about this collaboration in a future blog. 

PIPELINE runs October 24-November 9, presented at Shakespeare & Company’s Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre.

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