As the lights dimmed, excited chatter subdued to hushed whispers, and the audience turned their attention to the stage. The first spotlight bathed a single figure in a pool of warmth, and Pipeline began. 

On Feb. 24, UC Santa Cruz’s African American Theater Arts Troupe (AATAT) premiered Pipeline to a full house at Second Stage. Pipeline marks another addition to AATAT’s now 32-year-long lineup of performances. Audience members entered this year’s show anticipating something great.

“It went beyond my expectations […] Everything was very strategic. It wasn’t just for entertainment; it’s almost like self-reflection,” said second-year Savannah Benefield. “I definitely would recommend [seeing Pipeline]. Even if you can’t relate, it can allow exposure to everyday things that people of color deal with.”

The production marks AATAT’s third selection from the work of renowned Black playwright Dominique Morisseau, a two-time winner of the NAACP Image Award. The play is directed by Don Williams and second-year assistant director Nazeerah Rashad. 

Pipeline is a story about a Black family’s encounter with the school-to-prison pipeline. The play follows Nya, a public school teacher and mother of Omari, who finds himself in serious trouble following an altercation with his prep school teacher.

This production of Pipeline marks Halin Moss’ debut performance with AATAT, though the third-year UCSC student has been a part of productions in other spaces. Photo by Arthur Wei.

“[Pipeline] brings up the question of, what are alternative forms of discipline?,” said fourth-year Bene’t Benton, who plays Nya. “How should we go about teaching our children? Is what we’re doing not working? Is it just perpetuating a system that is inherently racist?”

The pared-down set that greets the audience in the opening scene serves as a classroom, bedroom, and hospital, but was designed to resemble a prison.

Pipeline deals with heavy themes and strong emotions. Throughout the play, performers delivered one emotional gut punch after another. Yet, the show is also full of humor and warmth.

“I was excited to see a play that reflects my school, my background,” said second-year audience member Suzie Gonzalez. “I loved it. I wasn’t expecting to experience [so many] different emotions.”

Most of the roles in the production are double-casted. Opening night starred Benton as Nya and Halin Moss as Omari. Jokaelle Porter and Sierra Wypych joined Benton as Nya’s coworkers, security guard Dun and fellow teacher Laurie. Omari’s girlfriend, Jasmine, was played by Bella Percy, and his father by Essau Robins-Bilal.  

Scenes at Nya’s school were peppered with rapid-fire punchlines and social commentary. Omari and Jasmine exchanged playful banter. Pipeline’s timeless and snappy dialogue drew laugh after laugh from the audience. 

But the performers’ passion shone brightest in emotional exchanges between Nya, Omari and Xavier. Benton, Moss, and Robins-Bilal’s on-stage chemistry brought Pipeline’s struggling parent-child relationships to life. Minutes after getting laughs, the performers left the audience wiping away tears.

Top: A very tense and climactic moment on stage when Xavier, Omari’s father, loses control of his years of built up anger towards Omari. Photo by Arthur Wei. Bottom: Omari faces the audience during a monologue.

Benton was happy to see that some of the students in the audience brought their parents, too. 

“I want the show to spark conversation,” Benton said. “I think it was important to […] help the kid and the parent see each other’s sides, and see that everyone’s hurting, everyone’s trying to do the best for themselves and for each other.”

Bene’t Benton gets congratulated on stage by Don Williams for their four years of service with AATAT. Photo by Arthur Wei.