Daughters and Sons

Tackling the School-to-Prison Pipeline on Stage

Pipeline at the Ensemble confronts the everyday reality for so many African American students.

By Holly Beretto May 7, 2019

What would you do to protect your child? How do you keep him or her safe from the world at large? And what happens if it seems their future has already been laid before them and a parent is powerless to alter its course?

Those are just some of the questions that make their way into the story of Dominique Morisseau’s play Pipeline, opening this week at the Ensemble Theatre. The title refers to the school-to-prison pipeline that pushes disadvantaged, often African American, youngsters (most often young men) through school systems that are often not well designed to help them, and into penitentiaries.

Teacake Ferguson plays Nya, the mother in the production. Her character is a teacher at an impoverished inner-city school; she and her ex-husband have sent their son, Omar, to a private boarding school in an attempt to give him advantages that would keep him from being just another statistic.

“It’s very real,” says Ferguson about the anxiety African American parents feel about their children’s relationship with society, especially if those children are sons. “I talked to so many parents of teenagers to prepare for this, and every one of them talked about how much they wanted to protect their sons. They don’t want to coddle them, but they realize there is so much danger out there.”

Ferguson will be known to Houston audiences for her role in the Ensemble’s Simply Simone, and  TUTS’s The Wiz and Dreamgirls. She readily admits she spends most of her acting life in musicals. But she was encouraged by the Ensemble’s artistic director, Eileen Morris, to audition for the role of Nya. The role felt completely foreign to her; she has no children and hadn’t done a lot of non-musical plays.

“But I was in what I call my Season of Bravery, so I took that leap and did a cold reading of the role,” she says. “When they called to tell me I got the part, I was shocked.”

In addition to tapping into the experiences of friends and friends-of-friends who are parents, she drew from her own experience as a classroom teacher. The play’s raw emotions echo conversations Ferguson says happen every day in the African American community. That’s why, she believes, the show will resonate deeply with audiences.

As she’s continued to explore and grow into her character, she says she’s been struck by Morisseau’s prose, which she describes with an enthusiastic phrase: “Oh, my goodness!” And she loves that Nya, who teaches poetry, not only recites, but retreats into poetry when she is overwhelmed. In fact, poetry as dialogue and plot devices are woven throughout the play.

Ferguson knows the show has moments that will hit the audience hard, especially if they happen to be parents. But she also wants it to spur them to look at how they see their children.

“I hope it makes them really pay attention to their kids. What are their kids saying to them? How are they connecting?” she says.

Pipeline will not offer easy answers, she knows, but it’s an important commentary on where society is right now.

May 9–June 2. Tickets from $33. The Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main St. 713-520-0055. More info and tickets at ensemblehouston.com

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