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Pipeline Review: A Mother and Teacher Worries About Her Son

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

Die soon.

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.

Pipeline

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.
Tickets: $87
Pipeline is scheduled to run through August 27, 2017

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Skeleton Crew by Dominique Morisseau – Review, Pics

Dominique Morisseau, the author of Skeleton Crew, the compelling final play in her Detroit trilogy which focuses on a group of Detroit auto workers, won the 2015 Steinberg Playwright Award, which honors promising dramatists with $50,000 grants apiece. But, for online denizens at least, she may be best known right now for the essay she wrote in December in American Theatre Magazine, “Why I Almost Slapped a Fellow Theater Patron, and What That Says About Our Theaters.” , about an encounter she had with an older white woman, who gave her free tickets to a show but asked her to quiet down during the performance. Morisseau’s use of this incident to expound upon white privilege in the theater and “microaggressions” generated an avalanche of online and social media commentary, most of it not supportive.

That essay might make me reluctant to sit next to Dominique Morisseau in a theater, but Skeleton Crew is just the latest of her plays to make me eager to see her work on stage.

Full review on DC Theatre Scene

Click on any of the photographs by Ahron Foster to see them enlarged.

 

Theater Artists Get Awards! #Hamiltunes! Spring Awakening! The Week in New York Theater

Three New York theater artists were awarded the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowships, including Lin-Manuel Miranda,

Just a few days earlier, Miranda offered a first listen and the entire lyrics for the original cast album of Hamilton – which was reason enough to give him an award.

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Nine new theater artists were inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame:

playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America)

songwriting team Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (Ragtime, Rocky, Once on this Island)

director Julie Taymor (The Lion King)

director Robert Falls (artistic director of the Goodman Theater)

actor Stacy Keach (Macbird, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Other Desert Cities)

lighting designer Ken Billington (veteran of nearly 100 Broadway shows, including Chicago and the forthcoming Dames at Sea)

Broadway publicist Merle Debuskey (more than 200 Broadway shows, including those by Arthur Miller, Lorraine Hansberry, and Michael Bennett)

actor Roger Rees, posthumously

Founded in 1971, the Theater Hall of Fame honors lifetime achievement.

 

Many Emmy winners with theater backgrounds. Complete list of Emmy winners. (Scroll down to read Viola Davis’s speech.)

The Week in New York Theater Reviews

Susannah Flood and Gbenga Akinnagbe

Susannah Flood and Gbenga Akinnagbe

My review of Fulfillment If Bradshaw’s signature X-rated touches feel gratuitous in “Fulfillment,” the play is nevertheless fulfilling in many ways– a well-acted (bravely acted!), smoothly directed, smart, at times funny, more often horrifying and ultimately thought-provoking glimpse into our pursuit of happiness. Full review of Fulfillment The New Morality Mint My review of The New Morality Unearthed by the indispensable Mint Theater, whose mission is to “excavate buried theatrical treasures,” the play is being given the Mint’s usual quality production, with a pleasing set and costumes, and a capable seven-member cast that almost made me put aside my longtime lobbying for a legal ban on American actors using British accents on New York stages. Still, for all the skill on display under the direction of Jonathan Bank, the Mint persuaded me only that “The New Morality” is a rediscovered historical and anthropological treasure, not a theatrical one. Full review of The New Morality Trans shows My review of Sommerfugl It’s not so surprising that the story of the person who underwent what is described as one of the first publicly acknowledged transgender surgeries is being told more than once, given how much attention the “T” in “LGBT” is finally getting Full review of Sommerfugl

Treshelle Edmond, Ali Stroker, Amelia Hensley, Lauren Luiz, Kathryn Gallagher, Krysta Rodriguez, and Alexandra Winter

Treshelle Edmond, Ali Stroker, Amelia Hensley, Lauren Luiz, Kathryn Gallagher, Krysta Rodriguez, and Alexandra Winter

My review of Spring Awakening The Deaf West production of Spring Awakening at the Brooks Atkinson tangibly enhances an acclaimed musical about rebellious and repressed adolescents. By cleverly pairing deaf actors who are signing with hearing actors who are singing, Deaf West has made the show the most accessible on Broadway, but also forged it into something theatrically exceptional. Daddy Long Legs 8 Paul Alexander Nolan and Megan McGinnis in DADDY LONG LEGS , Photo by Jeremy Daniel My review of Daddy Long Legs n a program note for Daddy Long Legs, director John Caird wonders why the 1912 novel on which the musical is based isn’t considered a great American classic. I wonder the opposite – why its problematic premise has inspired a 16-character Broadway play, at least seven movies and now a two-character Off-Broadway musical, which has been bopping around regionally and internationally for half a dozen years.

Lindsay Hockady, April Matthis, Mike Iveson, Maggie Hoffman

Lindsay Hockady, April Matthis, Mike Iveson, Maggie Hoffman

My review of Fondly, Collette Richland During the intermission for the Elevator Repair Service’s “Fondly, Collette Richland,” at the same time that a noticeable number of theatergoers fervidly exited New York Theatre Workshop for good, an avant-garde director I know came up to me and said “I’m loving this. But it should be at 3 in the morning.” I agreed with the director… and also with the exiting theatergoers. Full review of Fondly, Collette Richland

The Week in New York Theater News

This season’s Tony Awards will take place June 5, 2016. Shows must open by April 26, 2016 to be eligible. (And,if you haven’t heard, the Tony Awards will NOT be taking place at Radio City; probably at the much smaller Beacon Theatre)

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Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams will star on Broadway in David Harrower’s play “Blackbird” nine years after Daniels appeared in the same role as a man who abused a young girl who has now grown up. Previews begin in February at the Belasco, with a planned March opening. (Photograph shows the 2007 production with Alison Pill)

MotherstruckCulture Project cancels (or postpones) Staceyann Chin’s Motherstruck, directed by Cynthia Nixon. “we do not have the resources to produce” it.

With its new Thixteen program, Primary Stages is offering middle school and high school students FREE tickets to its shows.

Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy, opens November 15 at Signature Theater with Jonny Orsini, Richard Thomas et al

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Critic John Lahr on Critics As The Enemy

Scenes from the 29th annual Broadway Flea Market

Social Justice Theater. Last Supper at Cafe Edison. Meryl Streep’s Annual Christmas Special? Week in New York Theater

New Broadway shows announced this week include: School of Rock, Something Rotten, Bombshell (about Marilyn Monroe) and Sherlock Holmes – the last two have a catch to them (scroll to 18)

Much of the activity this week focused on how theater artists can respond to the recent spate of tragedies and outrages that have spawned a movement — or at least a hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Below are excerpts or links to transcripts of some of the conversations and other theatrical responses, including six plays.

Raymond J. Lee has created another one of his Broadway music videos, this one with his fellow cast members from Honeymoon in Vegas:

(Here is my post about Lee and his previous videos)

Week in New York Theater December 15-21

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Broadway Christmas Week Schedule (and holiday shows)

 

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My review of Every Brilliant Thing

Every Brilliant Thing,” a funny, fun and moving show about a boy who begins writing a list of “everything worth living for” to cheer up his suicidal mother, comes from Great Britain, where “brilliant” is used the way Americans say cool or awesome. As it turns out, though, “Every Brilliant Thing” is brilliant in the American sense too.

This is largely thanks to Jonny Donahoe, who portrays the central character, the unnamed narrator, in Duncan MacMillan’s hour-long play, which has now opened at the Barrow Street Theater, where it is scheduled to run through March 29, 2015. I say the central character, even though he is the only paid actor in the show, because the cast includes just about every member of the audience.

Full review of Every Brilliant Thing

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2015 season for Encores Off-Center series.
William Finn’s A New Brain starring Jonathan Groff – June 24-27
Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party, starring Sutton Foster, July 15-18
Little Shop of Horrors with original cast member Ellen Greene, July 1

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My review of Pocatello 10 Unhappy People In A Dying Diner In A Dead-End Town, starring T.J. Knight

“There are plenty of unhappy people in the world, why should we be the ones who get to be happy?” says one of the ten characters in “Pocatello,” the new play at Playwrights Horizons by the newly anointed MacArthur Foundation “genius” playwright Samuel D. Hunter. “Maybe we’re just unhappy people.”

That’s for sure. All ten characters we see in a tacky chain restaurant in the dead-end town of Pocatello, Idaho are unhappy, each in their own way.

Full review of Pocatello

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Something Rotten to skip Seattle and open on Broadway, April 22

Top 10 Shows of 2014 that you can still see (but hurry)

Seven new judges for the Obie Awards:

1 Playwright Adam Bock

2 Orchestrator Bruce Coughlin

3 and 4. Directors Lear deBessonet and Liesl Tommy

5. Scenic designer Mimi Lien

6 and 7. Critics David Rooney and Tom Sellar

STUPID FU**ING BIRD “sort of adapted” by Aaron Posner from Chekhov’s The Seagull Jan 30-Feb 1 modern classics series at the Pearl Theatre Company.

JeremyJordan

Jeremy Jordan will play Leo Frank and Laura Benanti his wife, in the Manhattan Concert Production of Parade by Jason Robert Brown, Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center February 16, 2015

Jordan will also be joining a cast that also includes Kate Baldwin  in the concert “Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince Collaboration”at the 92nd Street Y, January 10-12.

Shakespeare was the NOT most popular playwright of his era. So how did “bardolatry” happen?

 

kelli12 Kelli O’Hara talks about The King and I, Peer Pan Live, The Merry Widow at the Met..and how she’d love to see The Music Man on NBC. — and why The Sound of Music makes her both happy and sad:  “A lot of families have Christmas traditions and one of mine growing up was always to watch THE SOUND OF MUSIC – even though it’s not a Christmas show. So, whenever I hear a song from that show, it reminds me a little of Christmas. Actually, “My Favorite Things” is one of the very first songs I ever sang in my life – when I was like 10!” The role of Maria role “is the reason I am here! Julie Andrews is such a big part of why I sing. Honestly – and, unfortunately – it’s the one Rodgers & Hammerstein role that has gotten away that I have never gotten to play.”

 

Artivism excerpts:
“If you alter, even by a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change it.” – James Baldwin,

quoted by sponsor of the #TheatreTalk, Lark

How does writing in a time of political strife & social conflict make you feel & impact your work?

August Schulenburg: We’ve always been in a time of strife & conflict. Difference now is social media makes them visible to all

Mona Mansour: 2014 was filled with horrific shit. The temperature of things,politically etc, just naturally seeps into my work

Keith Josef Atkins: A part of me feels artists should ONLY write about the specificity of now. I feel like the gun is at our heads

August Schulenburg: One challenge is getting past binaries of audience vs community, & aesthetic excellence vs social justice

Mona Mansour: Theater forces people to be in the SAME ROOM as the event, people, the feelings. No other art form does that

Dominique Morisseau: In seeing ourselves in others, we can see how systemic injustice becomes personal.That’s how to motivate masses. Plays that asks more questions than gives answers empowers audiences to solve.

August Schulenberg: I think there’s value in healing & community-building in so-called “preaching to the choir” that’s valuable. Also, there’s a lot more diversity of perspective within theatre community then people are aware of… When @FluxTheatre did “Understand Our Ground” there was wide range of persepective re: #Trayvon
if every lip-service artist became a fully-energized agent of social justice, we could make a huge impact and I’m holding myself accountable to reaching toward that goal. Not there yet, but trying.

Transcript of another online conversation, via New Victory Theater and the Queens Museum:  How do you teach young people community action through the arts? 

 

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Script of all six ten-minute plays by black male playwrights commissioned by Keith Josef Adkins, entitled Hands Up

Poll: The Worst Broadway Show of 2014

Audra McDonald in Lady Day at the Emerson Bar and Grill

Audra McDonald in Lady Day at the Emerson Bar and Grill

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill with Audra McDonald  will be filmed for HBO

PInkhamandKready

Bryce Pinkham is leaving A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder for The Heidi Chronicles, but only temporarily. Jeff Kready to star in GG until Pinkham’s return.

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Today (two and a half weeks before it closes) Side Show will be recorded for posterity by The Library for the Performing Arts and Lincoln Center.

StingwithIain

Sting talks with kindergartner Iain Armitage “one of the hottest theater critics around.”  Sting says at the end: “That was one of the best interviews I’ve ever done.” (I told you kid would take our jobs.)

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SchoolofRock

School of Rock, based on Jack Black movie, will be a Bway musical , w/new music by @OfficalALW. Opens Dec 6, 2015 Winter Garden

Cabaret is set for a 20-city tour across the USA beginning Jan 2016. (Cast and other specifics not yet announced.)

Sherlock Holmes, a new play by Rachel Wagstaff & Duncan Abel, is set for Broadway….in 2017. (if Manhattan hasn’t frozen over)

Bombshell, fictional Marilyn Monroe musical of Smash, is coming to Broadway – for one night (6/15/15) as a benefit for The Actors Fund.

After seven years, Second Stage aims finally to purchase Helen Hayes in February, but needs to raise more money. More women/people of color on Broadway? http://nyti.ms/1DQjbCP

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The Dramatist’s g=Guild is part of a campaign to honor Arthur Miller with a United States postage stamp on 100th anniversary of his birth 10/15/15

Favorite Stage Performances of 2014

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Missed Victory Gardens #WeMustBreathe gathering? Video on HowlroundTV (Starts at about 20 minutes in)

How can theater help w/ #BlackLivesMatter movement? Try these timely plays (some new) via American Theatre

Into-the-Woods Meryl Streep

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You realize that Meryl Streep was in a play-to-film last Christmas too Will this become an annual event, like NBC’s live musicals?

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My review of Nella Tempesta at LaMaMa

 

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Despite the petition with 10,000 signatures, and the letter-writing campaign to the owner of the Hotel Edison, the “Polish Tea Room” ends today

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