Usually, when artists read or hear something in the news that confirms that they are on or ahead of the zeitgeist, they feel a frisson of vindication. Not Dominique Morisseau.
The 2018 MacArthur Foundation “genius” fellow and book writer of Broadway’s “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations” was exasperated Monday as she processed a harrowing story out Orlando, Fla.
There, two 6-year-olds — mere first-graders — recently were handcuffed, fingerprinted and booked after having tantrums at school.
Morisseau let out a sigh.
“There should never be an instance where something like this happens to any child,” Morisseau said. “When we treat young people like that — when we criminalize culture — we have all failed.”
The fear and trauma that such experiences induce permeate “Pipeline,” Morisseau’s 2017 play that previews Tuesday at St. Paul’s Penumbra Theatre. The drama is about a black mother, a schoolteacher who is raising a son whom she wants to launch into the world safely. He has been accused of assaulting a teacher.
Named for the so-called school-to-prison pipeline, the drama was inspired by incidents with slightly older young people, some whose names have become hashtags in the Black Lives Matter movement. They include Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old who was shot by a Cleveland police officer after playing with a toy gun, and Michael Brown, the 18-year-old whose killing by a Ferguson, Mo., police officer set off riots.
“All kids are vulnerable, flawed, and black kids need to have the space to be all of that,” she said.
“This subject matter will make you sit up and listen and rake you over the coals,” said director Lou Bellamy, Penumbra’s founder and emeritus artistic director. “As adults, we see what’s out there, and those kids don’t see it. They think they’re just like everybody else and that people will treat them the same way.”
“Pipeline” is the latest Morisseau work to land at Penumbra, which has produced “Detroit ’67,” about the climate that led to the famous civil unrest in the Motor City, and “Sunset, Baby,” about a couple of idealistic rights activists whose lives pivot when one of them becomes involved in the drug trade. They were gritty, poetic and palpable offerings, directed by Bellamy.
And they fall in the tradition of black writers such as Gwendolyn Brooks and Richard Wright who saw themselves not only as artists but also as activists with a moral responsibility — the same way Morisseau describes herself. Their words and ideas are layered throughout the play.
As such, this play also is in conversation with Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow,” which looks at mass incarceration.
“I always look at the education system as part of the prison system, the pipeline to prison” for many kids, Morisseau said. “The segregation in education, in the resources available to schools, is part of that Jim Crow system.”
This is a lifelong pursuit for her, not fashion, Morisseau said.
“The moniker of being woke is popular now, and it’s not bad that more people are getting to activism,” she said. “But if people are doing something because it’s fashionable or a trend, that means it will go out of style. Justice is not something that should go out of style.”
Morisseau does deep dives for her plays, but she came to “Pipeline” with a level of intimacy. For 15 years, she taught in the public schools of New York City, helping kids of all backgrounds learn.
“To be a teacher, you have to really care about kids,” she said. “You have to understand that they’re not just bots come to download information from you, but human beings who may have had something happen to them on their way to school and who have their own state of mind that you have to understand in order to do your job.”
She also taught for a year in her old high school in Detroit, where her teacher mother retired after several decades.
Morisseau was fired up as she spoke by phone from Detroit, where the L.A.-based writer was visiting family.
“Being human is not conditional,” she said. “There’s no valuation that says you get to live because you are nice or are well-liked.
“When black kids are getting shot by cops, the answer is not to fix the kids. All kids have turmoil, problems, complicated relationships with themselves. And they all need help and assistance. That we criminalize black kids is on us. We’re the ones to fix it. Why a cop thinks a boy is a man, that’s his problem. People want to police a kid’s hair; that’s not the kid’s problem. A young black man with dreadlocks or cornrows — these are not symbols of disobedience and violence.
“We have to decriminalize culture across the board. And when it comes to fighting crime, why disproportionately target one group? That’s not the only place where crime happens.”
While Morisseau sees challenges in the way that stereotypes impose outside strictures, she also sees the need for men to question ideas from the inside about masculinity.
“Hypermasculinity is just as problematic to me,” she continued. “It doesn’t give men the space to be emotional, to acknowledge their own pain or that they seek love. It’s like it’s too socially expensive to be fragile.”
She points to one of the reasons that contribute to this. “We put black men on trial for their own deaths,” she said. “When something happens, we find ways to show that they were criminals, that they deserved to die. Again, not even in death do they have a chance to be flawed and fragile and human.”
In the play, the mother comes to terms with the fact that everyone is missing the thing that her son needs. “She’s asking us to think different and have another answer than just throwing kids in jail,” Morriseau said. “The answer can’t always be throw away, toss out and try again.”
As a teacher and educator, Morisseau has love for her students, even the ones who misbehave. She told an anecdote of an incident that happened in her classroom at the end of the day. She had left her classroom to dismiss her students, and when she came back, she was surprised to find two boys in her room. Nervous and jittery, they didn’t have a good explanation for why they were there. After they left, she found that her cellphone was missing. She found it in the trash can where the boys were standing.
“These little suckers were savvy to sneakily talk to me while throwing the phone away,” she said. “I thought: Do I call the cops or their mom? Eventually, I decided to do neither. I knew why they took my phone — they’re hungry and want things of value. I thought, what kind of heartless educator would I be to have them thrown in jail?”
When Morisseau saw the students the next day, she let them know that she knew what they had done and that she had higher expectations of them. “You know better than that,” she said as the boys became apologetic.
“I reminded them that when they’re doing that, they’re not just acting out of their own survival but causing harm to me,” she said. “I want to see us treat kids this way, set up conflict resolution programs, have counseling and resources, have the things that they need to lift this generation so that we don’t have to keep having the same conversations. That’s my dream.”