By: Isa Goldberg
August 4, 2017: While Dominique Morisseau’s new play, Pipeline, at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater has all the trappings of a realistic drama with an overt pedagogic message, Morisseau beats the drum with surprising depth. Carrying her message with immediacy, director Lileana Blain-Cruz, wrangles her team of six actors into full on-stage battle – all while they stand around talking about violence in the classroom. That violence, which is not acted out on stage, is suggested in video projections (Hannah Vasileski), set to rumbling drums (Justin Ellington).
Teaching youth is the collective objective here, in the sense of convey –
as a pipeline conveys. Specifically, the play asks how do we convey, when the obstacle is the students – African American students particularly. Karen Pittman (Nya), an actor who has embodied a wide range of theater roles with commanding presence, plays the mother of such a student. She’s a divorcee, as well as a teacher in an inner city high school.
Since the play doesn’t dance around the issues, neither should we. Nya and her ex-husband, Xavier (Morocco Omari), are upper middle class people who have sent their son away to a private school so that he “can get out of the hood,” and the school system that constricts him. The young man’s history – the fact that there is no father in the picture – is like many other African American kids, regardless of the pretense of privilege.
In fact, their son Omari, sensitively portrayed by Namir Smallwood, has a strapping youthful build with a face that looks a hundred years old. His is an old story. His acting out expresses the pain of losing a father, just the way losing a limb continually informs the nervous system that a connection needs to be made. But that pain is really a reminder that there is no connection to make. Similarly, the play requires us to ask where that hidden link is that binds this young man to society, to social norms and expectations.
Morisseau, whose works include Detroit ’67 and Skeleton Crew, about the plight of our auto workers, grapples with glaring, fundamental social issues, without shrinking. In Pipeline the level of conflict is constant, as Nya also allies herself with a white school teacher, played with frenzied energy, and a gruff, sarcastic edge by Tasha Lawrence. Accused of interfering with two kids in her class, while she was only trying to keep two teenage boys from killing each other, she is equally the victim.
Fortunately, the characters as portrayed reach beyond explicit stereotypes, especially Omari’s teenage girlfriend Jasmine (Heather Velazquez), who feels that his breaking up with her, has denied her of a real relationship, because she didn’t get the chance to argue with him. For a girl who would be a likely candidate for teenage pregnancy, she certainly has a mature concept of relationship. Other scenes of comic relief also break up the seriousness of the material.
But it is very much to the playwright’s intention to teach a lesson, or at least invite us to think about how to teach the lessons that will allow our youth to become members of a social order, no matter how disarming it is. As Nya alludes, if we’re turning out animals, it’s because “we built the jungle.”
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater
150 West 65th Street, NYC
90 Minutes, No Intermission
Performances Through August 27, 2017
Opening Night July 10, 2017
Published on August 6, 2017
Photos: Jeremy Daniel