Mass incarceration, a house built on the foundation of slavery and Jim Crow, continues to shape the nation’s landscape along fault lines of systemic racism.

Using Audre Lorde’s well-known caution that “[t]he master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” new tools, and new perspective, are urgently needed to address the crime of mass incarceration that damages millions of individual lives, families, and whole communities.

Illinois Humanities launched Envisioning Justice to “examine and reimagine the criminal justice system through a creative lens.” Central to the project is an examination of the school to prison pipeline: school policies that criminalize primarily black and brown youth, leading to early involvement with the criminal justice system and incarceration. Programs in partnership with Victory Gardens Theater raised awareness of the devastating consequences of the school to prison pipeline by engaging audiences in an intimate way with those consequences.

Victory Garden Theater’s riveting production of Dominique Morisseau’s play, Pipeline, gripped the audience in this modern-day urban crisis of racial injustice.
At the center of the play are Omari, a black high school student sent to an elite boarding school to escape the dangers of his urban home, and his mother, Nya, who teaches in the local public high school, fraught with educational bureaucracy, frustration, and violence. When Omari is singled out by a white teacher in class, he lashes out, an act caught on video by his classmates; he runs away and returns home. The act and the social media surrounding it put him at great risk, and his mother’s laments ring through Pipeline with profound despair. A parent who is desperate for answers cannot find them. Dominique Morisseau demonstrates the impossibility of living lives of freedom and integrity in this vise grip. Individuals are left to fend for themselves as we, as a society, find ways to comprehend and dismantle a life-sucking system.

And find ways, we must.

Organizations in Chicago are creating ways to comprehend and respond. Following select productions of Pipeline, audiences were invited to stay for panel discussions with writers and groups working with young men and women of color. Storycatchers Theatre, an Envisioning Justice grantee, works with youth in the juvenile justice system to help them tell their stories through musical theatre, to move beyond their histories and transform their lives. Two young women described being caught in the juvenile justice system, and starting again at alternative high schools and through Storycatchers, where they were given space to examine and express feelings about traumas they had experienced. They learned they are “not defined by their mistakes,” and by recreating their stories for theatre, transformed their experiences into stories of triumph and possibilities.

Illinois Humanities has announced that Cheryl Lynn Bruce, director of Victory Gardens Theater’s production of Pipeline, and her partner, artist Kerry James Marshall, have been awarded the 2019 Public Humanities Award. The 2019 Public Humanities Award Luncheon will be held on Thursday, May 23, 2019 at 12 noon at the InterContinental Magnificent Mile.

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  • Tyla Abercrumbie and Matthew Elam Credit: Liz Lauren

  • Matthew Elam Credit: Liz Lauren