Director Jon Royal has been pushing Nashville theater to reflect the city’s diversity for years.
And his take on Dominique Morisseau’s Pipeline, which runs Oct. 19 – Nov. 3 at TPAC’s Johnson Theater, is no different.
“My whole goal as an artist is to make people interrogate their own choices and viewpoints,” Royal says. “So, whether an audience’s experience makes them question their beliefs or reaffirm them, hopefully at the very least it sparks a conversation. That’s really what it’s all about for me. The audience is the final character in each show.”
Referring to the school-to-prison pipeline prevalent in low-income communities, Nashville Repertory Theatre‘s second show of its 35th season shines a light on a mother’s hopes for her son clashing with an educational system rigged against him.
Like Royal’s past works, this one is personal.
“This was a story that was real and immediate to me,” Royal explains. “I have friends who made sacrifices to send their black children to very prestigious schools where they’re some of the only people of color there, all in the hopes of what it might mean for their future, and still face isolation and systemic racism. So, I feel like there’s a lot riding on shining a light on this story.”
No stranger to Nashville Rep (or Nashville theater in general for that matter), Royal directed last season’s Topdog/Underdog and Smart People — as well as Nashville Children’s Theatre’s recent world premiere of Ghost and Actors Bridge Ensemble’s Citizen: An American Lyric.
Complex, character-centric programming that challenges the Nashville community to think differently is what has made Royal a household name for over three decades.
“Anytime I go watch anything as an audience member, I want it to be at least as interesting as my own life,” he says. “And I know my own life is filled with challenging conversations. I know my own life is filled with diverse individuals where we sit down and we have tough conversations, experience joy, and still talk about the hard stuff. That’s all I want when I go to the theater, so that’s what I’m trying to deliver with Pipeline.”
Airing earlier this year on PBS’ Live from Lincoln Center broadcast, the story follows Nya, a dedicated African American public school teacher who is desperate to keep her teenage son Omari from succumbing to the school-to-prison pipeline. Omari attends an upstate New York private school, where he’s goaded into conflict by the subtle but ingrained racism of the privileged environment.
The cast, or “the dream team” as Royal puts it, blends veteran actors with Nashville Rep newcomers.
“Not a lot of stories about black families make it to these stages,” he adds. “So why would I not assemble the best cast I possibly can? And I think I’ve done that. It truly is the dream team, straight up.”
Though she’s no stranger to Nashville theater as a graduate of Fisk University, Alicia Haymer will make her Nashville Rep debut starring as Omari’s compassionate mother, Nya. Gerold Oliver (seen in the Rep’s Shakespeare in Love) stars as Omari. Rounding out the talented cast are Joel Diggs (Topdog/Underdog, Shakespeare in Love), Candace-Omnira, Mary Tanner, Barry Kennedy Jr. and Jackie Welch Schlicher.
For the creative team of Pipeline, it all comes back to the community and, apparently, the community all comes back to Pipeline.
With art and poetry playing a large role in Pipeline, the Gwendolyn Brooks poem “We Real Cool” is featured throughout the script.
Projections designed by talented local artist Omari Booker will be integrated into the scenery of the show. The theater lobby will be filled with projects by student artists, created in a month-long workshop this summer led by Royal and Booker. In the workshop, over a dozen students read and discussed Pipeline before putting their thoughts to paper and canvas to create the art that will welcome audiences to the Johnson Theater lobby.
Following the performance on Oct. 25, Nashville Rep is hosting a special Talkback titled “School Is _______: Diagnosing the Social and Emotional Disconnect in the Learning Experience.” That evening, a panel featuring Judge Sheila Calloway, Bishop Marcus A. Campbell, Oasis Center program director Tay McGee, and former NOAH co-chair Linda Robinson, moderated by Barbara Gunn-Lartey, will discuss the ways that systematic structures like the school-to-prison pipeline affect both the social and emotional well-being of our community.
For Royal, this story shines an honest light on a mother’s fight to give her son a future — without turning her back on the community that made him who he is.
“We get a chance to tell a story that is close to who we are as black people,” he says. “So, we have to bring our A game and elevate it to that level of humanity we know we possess within ourselves.”
Come see Pipeline, an incredible family drama about a mother trying to give her son the best in a world that was not designed to let him have it, running Oct. 19 – Nov. 3 at TPAC’s Johnson Theater.
Details on all ticket options can be found at nashvillerep.org and tickets for Pipeline and all Nashville Rep shows can be purchased from TPAC’s box office online, in person, or over the phone at 615-782-4040.
Connect with Michael Aldrich on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter @michaelwaldrich.