As “Pipeline” begins, we learn that a black teenager has gotten into a physical scuffle with his teacher and is in danger of being expelled, and arrested. But playwright Dominique Morisseau masterfully upends the tired assumptions that might attach to such a drama, in a play that is not just smart and engaging; it is also the most literate of any I’ve seen this year.
The teenager, Omari (Namir Smallwood), attends a mostly white private boarding school. The encounter occurred, as Omari later explains to his mother, after a discussion of Richard Wright’s novel “Native Son,” when the teacher kept on asking him questions about the African-American protagonist of that novel, the killer Bigger Thomas. “’What made Bigger Thomas kill that woman? What were his social limitations? What made the animal in him explode?’ And who he lookin’ at when he askin’ all these questions, Ma. Who he lookin’ at?”
“Omari,” his mother replies.
“Like I’m the spokesperson. Like I’m Bigger Thomas. Like I’m pre-disposed or some shit to knowing what it’s like to be an animal.”
“Pipeline”is no polemic. The play focuses less on Omari than it does on his mother, Nya, portrayed by the wonderful actress Karen Pittman (Disgraced, King Liz) – and, truth be told, she too has questions and concerns about her own son…and other mothers’ sons. She is a teacher herself, in what is euphemistically called (but not in this play!) an “inner city school.”
Nya is also a single mother – but, again, that doesn’t mean what some people would assume. Omari’s father Xavier (Morocco Omari) is a successful businessman, who is paying for Omari’s schooling. We even piece together, in passing, that it was Nya’s actions that destroyed the marriage.
Again and again, in other words, the playwright insists on the specificity of her characters. This long has impressed me about Dominique Morisseau, who in addition to her playwriting is a writer for the Showtime series “Shameless,” about a struggling family in Chicago, and whose previous plays include “Skeleton Crew,” about a financially-threatened group of Detroit auto workers, which was given a terrific production last year.
Off stage, Morisseau is passionate and outspoken about a range of social and political issues, but her beliefs never seem to interfere with her integrity as a playwright . She doesn’t use her characters to score points; she allows them their lives – which are as full and complicated as any of the characters we are more used to seeing on stage. It is refreshing, for example, that “Pipeline” features a character, Dun (Jaime Lincoln Smith), who is intelligent and caring and flirtatious and adulterous…and works as a minimum wage school security guard.
All six characters in “Pipeline” are given their due, aided immeasurably by some outstanding performances under the fine direction of Lileana Blain-Cruz.
The title of Morisseau’s play is an oft-used term among educators, employed as a metaphor for the fate awaiting school children. The students labeled “gifted” go into one pipeline. The term is commonly used these days to describe what happens way too often to poor children of color — “the school to prison pipeline,” which was the subject of Anna Deavere Smith’s documentary drama, “Notes from the Field.”
There is no mention of this term in the play itself (although there’s an explanation of it in the accompanying issue of the Lincoln Center Theatre Review.) The problems in education are presented obliquely but effectively, and not downplayed: In between scenes, Hannah Wasileski’s huge video projections of what look to be real-life chaos and violence inside an actual school cover the institutional wall of a set that looks like an especially forbidding high school gymnasium. Nya’s colleague Laurie (the gloriously in-your-face Tasha Lawrence), has just returned to school after facial reconstruction surgery to repair the damage from an attack by the parents of a failing student. “I’ll outlast ‘em all,” she barks. (By the end of the play, we’re not so sure.)
Nya most eloquently expresses her worries about her son when she is teaching the 1959 poem by Gwendolyn Brooks, “We Real Cool: The Pool Players Seven at the Golden Shovel”:
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
Nya teaches the poem to her class, and to the audience too. It’s a testament to the skills of Pipeline’s playwright, director and performers how much this poem winds up meaning to us, and moving us.
There may not be a traditional story arc in “Pipeline” — as the play progresses, we dig deeper into the characters — and no clear-cut resolution at its end, but that to me speaks to Morisseau’s integrity. She’s telling us like it is; a pat ending would ring false, given the circumstances. Any hopefulness is unlikely to exterminate the frustration and resentment and uncertainty.
Along the way, we are treated to Morisseau’s gifts, which include not just her compassionate portrayals and an easygoing grasp of literary poetry, but her exquisite ear for the delightful everyday poetry in the way people talk, such as in the dialogue between Omari and his boarding school girlfriend Jasmine (Heather Velazquez.) Her parents (like his) thrust her into this alien environment to get her out of the neighborhood and its bad influences. In a scene in her dorm room, Omari has just announced to her that he’s going to run away from school.
“Yo, this could be our last time,” he says, making a move.
“You kiddin’ me right now?” she says, darting up out of the bed.
“I’m just seeking intimacy.”
“You seeking to get socked in the eye. I don’t turn on and off like no stove.”
“You mean a faucet.”
“I mean a stove. One minute you got me hot. Next minute fire’s out…”
Later, using a lesson he learned in “Mr. Peterson’s Science Class,” Omari compares Jasmine to “Metamorphic rocks. They change in form. Made from heat and pressure. That’s what makes ‘em so rare and interesting. “
That sounds like a good description of all the characters in “Pipeline” – and of the play itself.
Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater
Written by Dominique Morisseau; Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz
Set design by Matt Saunders, costume design by Montana Blanco, lighting design by Yi Zhao, sound design by Justin Ellington.
Cast: Tasha Lawrence, Morocco Omari, Karen Pittman, Namir Smallwood, Jaime Lincoln Smith and Heather Velazquez
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.
Pipeline is scheduled to run through August 27, 2017