4/6/2019 PIPELINE Horizon Theatre
****½ ( A )
Nya Joseph is a single mom and a teacher at a "poor and failing" high school. She and her ex-husband, Xavier, (a wealthy man focused on business and his new "partner") "co-parent" their teenage son, Omari, going so far as to send him to a preppy Private School, in hopes of avoiding the "High School to Prison" pipeline that is the future of too many African-American teenage boys.
But, Omari has a bad day, and an "in-your-face" jerk of a teacher relentlessly goads him to identify with Richard Wright's "Bigger Thomas" (Native Son). The boy snaps, a physical scuffle ensues, and Omari is facing disciplinary action, most likely expulsion and "charges being filed." Nya goes into an emotional tailspin, especially when her son can't defend his actions, at least to her satisfaction.
Dominique Morisseau's Pipeline is an intense firecracker of a play, simultaneously tackling themes of understaffing at "failing" schools, double standards in treating rich and poor students, unconscious bias (and racism), and the persistence of hair-trigger anger in African-American teens. And, of course that societal "pipeline" that connects high schools and prisons.
In fact, anger ... no, RAGE ... dominates this piece, giving it an immediacy and power that almost overwhelms in this intimate space, A BroadwayHD.com
video (and February 2019 Live From Lincoln Center broadcast) of the play suggests its 2017 original production had its audience equally intimately placed, equally overwhelmed **.
Nya rages not only against the frustrations in dealing with a teenage son, but also against the very different frustrations that accompany dealing with a classroom full of disinterested adolescents. Her white co-worker (Laurie) rages against the security officer for censuring HER for "failing to follow protocol" when breaking up a deadly fight with a broom. The guard himself (Dun) rages against the school which provides him scant resources and below-poverty pay. Omari rages because he's a teenager and that's what teenagers do. His girlfriend Jasmine (the only other minority at their academy) rages about ... well, she rages because she's a teenager too, and males her age are such jerks. Xavier rages against Omari, because his "fathering skills" (which basically do not go further than writing a support check every month) do not evoke the filial respect he claims as his due..
Make no mistake, this is a very angry play, and, frankly, that anger evokes not so much reciprocal anger, as it does gut-punch sadness at the inevitable systemic roots of the characters' rage. More to the point, it very deftly paints Mother and Son as intelligent and dedicated characters, Nya's classroom lesson on Gwendolyn Brook's "We Real Cool" * is especially impactful (yes, she does treat the audience as her classroom), as is Omari's climactic "List of Instructions," a response to his mother's plea "WHAT DO YOU WANT ME TO DO??? PLEASE??? I NEED INSTRUCTIONS!!!" (Best of the lot -- "Forgive that I am not perfect.")
This is such a good script, almost every line is an eloquent plea, a lyric expression of character and (remarkably) wit. And passion! There is so much passion in playwright Morisseau's language that it can't help but overflow, washing over us like a sudden cold-splash-of-water epiphany, appealing to our own sense of justice, even to the rage we hold, that can't possibly approach that of these characters, whose life experiences are so alien to our own (I am obviously speaking as a comfortably suburban white male, here).
This is also a wonderfully effective (and affecting) cast. Wendy Fox-Williams is superb as Nya, as is Stephen Ruffin as Omari (who, thankfully, LOOKS like teenager -- the Lincoln Center actor looked to be in his thirties). Together they are a compelling family unit, awash in the petty irritations and squabbles that tend to overwhelm the "big issues." Asia Howard is a positive delight as Jasmine, sassy and sexy, loving and selfish. Filling out the cast: a dynamic Lamar K. Cheston as Dun, being the "comic relief" in his early scenes and exploding when his own rage gets piqued; Jay Jones as Xavier, arrogant and cold, not without a duty-drenched affection for his son; and Vicki Ellis Gray as Laurie, "an aging broad who doesn't stand a chance against these teens with zero body fat and weight lifters' bodies" who tower over her in the class.
The set by Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay is a marvel of rigid formality and practical fluidity -- walls open and swivel to quickly become a classroom, a teacher's lounge, a dormitory, a hospital waiting room, a living room, a rooftop, all with the same colorless cinder-block right-angles-only institutional feel. Horizon interns, all in School Guard uniforms, do the "heavy lifting" of moving in and out the set pieces and dressings. Projections by Bradely Bergeron help transitions as well as show us the latest "outrage" to stir YouTube outcry, even words reveal themselves at perfectly synchronized moments. Lighting and Sound by Mary Parker and Chris Lane perfectly complement the production without being intrusive.
Pipeline by Dominique Morisseau is a terrific production of a most excellent play. It is a marvelous tapestry of issues and motifs, and a forceful reminder that, to understand a kid's rage, you've got to understand the source. And to understand the source, you've got to do more than just skim the surface.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #htcPIPELINE)
* 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
-- Gwendolyn Brooks (1959)
** I was a little taken aback that the BroadwayHD video is a good fifteen minutes shorter than the Horizon production, and was going to take Horizon directors Tinashe Kajese Bolden and Keith Arthur Bolden to task for pacing shortcomings, when it struck me that the video edited out chunks of dialogue, and of course, had the luxury of a post-taping editor to "tighten it up." #UnfairComparison. In particular, the climactic recitations of Omari's "Instructions" to his mother are given a quick 1st-to-last reading on the video which somewhat lessens the impact of the same scene as staged by the Boldens.