Namir Smallwood And Karen Pittman. Photos By Jeremy
By Ron Cohen
come at you like machine-gun fire in Dominique Morisseau’s Pipeline, and
they are piercing, powerful and well-aimed. Morisseau has in her sight two
deeply complex targets: the corroding educational pipeline with its failing
inner city public schools and the incredible pressures of growing up black in America.
centers on Nya, an African-American public high school teacher, worried to the
point of panic about the future of her teen-age son, Omari. With the aid of her
ex-husband’s money (he’s a successful Wall Street executive), she has sent
Omari to an affluent prep school out of town, but now Omari has attacked a
teacher in a classroom, hitting him and shoving him up against the blackboard.
He’s being kicked out of school, is threatened with criminal charges and gone
eventually shows up in Nya’s apartment, and we learn how the attack was
prompted. The class was discussing Richard Wright’s 1940 landmark novel Native
Son, depicting an atmosphere of smothering racism where a young black man
accidentally becomes a murderer. In asking questions about the motives of the
novel’s hero, the teacher singled out Omari for responses, igniting a fit of
just questionin’ me about Native Son,” Omari says. “He ain’t just
talkin’ text. He sayin’ somethin’ else. Something beneath the question and it’s
like I’m the only one who can hear it.”
As the play
continues, the rage is explored more fully, in counterpoint to the chaos that
happens in the school where Nya teaches, and her fears for her son’s future
takes its toll on her. The suggestion of an early death for young black men, as
expressed in a poem she teaches -- We Real Cool by Gwendolyn Brooks --
riveting narrative, which comes to a hopeful conclusion, however. Nya pleads
for Omari before his school’s board, and returns to him with the beginning of
trust in his own goodness. As she tells the school board, “Don’t press charges.
Don’t lock away what hopes he can become. This rage is not his sin. It was
never his sin.”
direction of Lileana Blain-Cruz, the play has been given a high-voltage Lincoln
Center Theater production. Intensity is the key note. Whether she is talking to
her son, to her ex-husband or to the school security guy who may have played a
role in her marriage’s breakup, Karen Pitman’s arresting performance as Nya
never lets us forget she is a woman on the edge of a very foreboding precipice.
Even in her quieter or few comic moments, the tension is always present and
crackling. It’s a mood matched by Namir Smallwood’s deeply felt depiction of
Omari and Morocco Omari’s solid portrayal of Nya’s ex-husband. (For the record:
Yes, the actor has a last name that’s the same as the first name of Nya’s son.)
is further heightened with the character of Laurie, Nya’s dedicated fellow
teacher, whom we meet in the teachers’ lounge. A white woman, Laurie is given
to mile-a-minute, foul-mouthed arias railing against the deficiencies of the
system she is trying to function under. It’s a scene-stealing turn played with
ferocity by Tasha Lawrence.
Velazquez And Namir Smallwood
Another fast talker
is Jasmine, Omari’s school girlfriend, whose working-class parents have each
taken on two jobs to send her to a private school away from the temptations and
pitfalls of their neighborhood. In Heather Velazquez’s energetic embodiment,
Jasmine can go on and on about her feelings and what she feels Omari is feeling
with nary a breath.
laid-back moments come with Jaime Lincoln Smith as the school security officer.
He’s a playful soul at times, even getting laughs from the he way he slurps his
lunch of spaghetti from a plastic container. But he has his high-pitched moment
as well, as he tries to explain the overwhelming difficulties of his job.
production’s high-octane approach may well match much of the fervency of Morisseau’s
writing, but it sometimes gives the proceedings a didactic air, especially when
played against Matt Saunders’ spare set design. Small furniture vignettes are
rolled on and off the stage, backed by a huge starkly white wall on which
videos of hectic school scenes are sometimes projected.
deflects a bit from the humanity and empathy which are such a compelling part
of this work. Nevertheless, so much intelligence and passion comes to the fore
in Morisseau’s probing of these time-worn but still so urgent problems, it’s
hard not to find yourself being caught up in them.
the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater in Lincoln Center Theater
150 West 65th
212 239 6200