Thursday, July 20, 2017

45 (2017-2018): Review: PIPELINE (seen July 19, 2017)

"It Keeps Pumping"

As a passage in the current Lincoln Center Theater Review informs visitors to Dominique Morisseau’s (Skeleton Crew) sharply written, vividly acted, but somewhat uneven Pipeline, the play’s title (a word never mentioned in the play) has multiple metaphoric meanings, especially in the education world. The chief one she’s concerned with here is “the school-to-prison pipeline, which funnels children out of public schools and into the criminal-justice system.”

Karen Pittman, Namir Smallwood. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
Nya (Karen Pittman), an African-American English teacher at an inner city high school, is determined that her teenage son, Omari (Namir Smallwood), will not himself be pushed through that pipeline. She and her ex-husband, Xavier (Morocco Omari), a successful businessman, have sent Omari to Fernwood, an upstate, exclusive, predominantly white, prep school, to help him avoid such a fate. Omari nonetheless finds himself in legal jeopardy.

During a classroom incident in which his teacher singled him out for his responses to the plight of Bigger Thomas in Richard Wright’s Native Son, a classic of African-American literature, the angrily frustrated Omari responded by pushing the teacher so hard he faces having charges brought against him. This being Omari’s “third strike” at the school, things don’t look promising. When we later learn the specific reasons for his fury, we, like his mom and dad, may not agree that they condone his behavior.

Nya, who sees her aspirations for her son endangered, is devastated by what’s happened. Morisseau introduces us to her as a gifted educator teaching her students a brief but powerful poem by Gwendolyn Brooks, “We Real Cool.” Its eight lines sum up the world of young blacks faced with bleak prospects, captured in the final phrase: “We die soon,” a fate she wants to shield Omari from.

To further point up the dangers in inner city schools, the only other school employees we meet are Dun (Jaime Lincoln Smith), a well-meaning security guard (who has a yen for Nya), and Laurie (Tasha Lawrence), a jaded, angry, white teacher, who finds herself having to break up a fight between two boys by herself becoming physically involved.
Heather Velazquez, Namir Smallwood. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
As if the prevalence of such fighting needs further emphasis, many scene changes are accompanied by projections (designed by Hanna Wasileski) of what appear to be actual incidents of school violence. Interesting, yes, but, even with the offstage fight Laurie witnesses, they muddle the main subject, the overreaction of a troubled, middle-class black youth to a prep school instructor’s overzealous teaching. This is not the same thing as what the videos display.

The pipeline issues, while certainly real, don’t seem that well connected to the family drama surrounding Omari, a situation that, with a few tweaks, could apply as well to striving families of any ethnicity, regardless of its obvious pertinence for blacks. In other words, it’s hard to extrapolate larger social lessons regarding the difficulties in educating underprivileged minorities from Omari’s very specific situation; that would seem to lie more within the provenance of the Laurie subplot.

And one wonders why the otherwise verbally adept Omari—with his well-educated parents communicating in excellent English—speaks in ungrammatical homeboy locutions, like “Ain’t wanna leave that way” or “This is his words, not yours,” and is never corrected. It’s one thing for him to choose such language when speaking to his prep school girlfriend, Jasmine (Heather Velazquez), a Latina from an underprivileged family, similarly bright and given to a terrifically heightened version of teenage slang. It seems odd that Omari’s parents, so intent on his acquiring some of the perks of white privilege, pay his words no mind. You don’t have to be a sergeant in the grammar police to want your child to speak properly, especially when you do.
Morocco Omari, Namir Smallwood. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
Director Lileana Blain-Cruz’s staging of this 90-minute drama varies the locales (classroom, meeting room, dorm, waiting room, etc.) via minimal scenic units rolled on in front of a set (designed by Matt Saunders) showing a towering white, cinderblock wall with a metal door set in it, suggesting institutional oppression. Yi Zhao’s mostly bright lighting intensifies the effect.

Montana Levi Bianco’s costumes suitably reflect what these characters might wear, with the most noteworthy being Nya’s casual chic of high-heeled boots, skintight jeans, pale blue shirt, and thin, smart jackets or thin, hip-length sweaters; the twisting and tying of the latter's halves give her something with which to occupy her hands.
Namir Smallwood, Karen Pittman. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
Blain-Cruz keeps the pace brisk and the energy fierce as her actors engage in a series of high-temperature confrontations, often abandoning naturalism for poetic realism. These scenes sometimes overdramatize what’s being said; luckily, Morisseau’s richly colorful dialogue sizzles and the cast is top-notch at expressing the characters’ rage and frustration.

Blain-Cruz gets a striking performance from Pittman as the distraught Nya, chain smoking (albeit, like many actors nowadays, unconvincingly) and even hitting the bottle; a deft and passionate one from Smallwood as Omari, although he’s too old for the role; a scene-stealing one from Velazquez as the defiant but vulnerable Jasmine; a commanding one from Omari as Xavier, the father who substitutes financial for emotional support; a ferocious one by Lawrence as a teacher at the end of her tether; and a proud one from Smith as Dun, a caring man in a stressful job.

It isn’t the best example of Morisseau’s work, and it does sometimes get clogged, but Pipeline keeps on pumping when other plays might have run out of gas. 


Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse

Lincoln Center, NYC

Through August 27