‘Pipeline’ refers back to an ACLU article citing a “school-to-prison pipeline” through which underprivileged kids from the public education system often transfer directly to reformatories.
Nya (Karen Pittman) is a contemporary, black teacher in a rough public high school. (Note the blue jeans.) Thuggish confrontations in the workplace are common. Later in the play, when Security Guard Dun (Jamie Lincoln Smith) doesn’t arrive in time, foul-mouthed, dedicated teacher Laurie (Tasha Lawrence) stops one strapping boy from bashing in the head of another by whacking him with a broom.
Karen Pittman and Tasha Lawrence
Having deferred to her ex husband, Xavier (Morocco Omari), Nya’s only son Omari (Namir Smallwood) attends a private academy away from an environment seen as inevitably damaging. Expectations of adjustment and achievement, however, are met with opposite results. The bitter, raging boy is often in trouble. His father pays, but remains mostly absent.
In a third violent incident, Omari has pushed a teacher against a blackboard. Despite a no cell phone rule, the incident was surreptitiously recorded by a student. The boy is suspended and will conceivably be prosecuted. Nya is exhausted and at her wit’s end. She’d give her life for her son, but hasn’t a clue how to help.
Heather Velasquez and Namir Smallwood
Omari’s spitfire, Spanish girlfriend Jasmine (Healther Velasquez) has also been torn from familiar surroundings to be placed at the academy. She shares feelings of frustration, displacement and futility. When he considers running away, she wants to go with “her man.”
Pivotal to this play is the level of intelligence and culture exhibited by Nya and Omari. While Jasmine talks ghetto, well spoken Omari’s aggression stemmed from feelings of abandonment by his father evoked during class discussion of Bigger Thomas, protagonist of Richard Wright’s iconic novel, Native Son. The boy makes smart connections and feels goaded, a presumption easy to understand based on his telling of events.
Nya is haunted by an eclectic Gwendolyn Brook poem she’s currently teaching: ‘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. Like a death knell, parts of the verse are intermittently intoned by an apparition of Omari. This is a teacher who tries to get students to rise to ideas rather than lower her standards.
Morocco Omari and Namir Smallwood
Most drama epitomizing the untenable circumstances described is black and white (no pun intended), employing primal characters with little self awareness. Though playwright Dominique Morisseau’s people are confused and greatly impotent, they’re also articulate, facilitating empathy.
We middle class white folks may never fully understand root feelings illuminated here, but isolation, prejudice, pain, and fatalism are universal. The firebrand piece is as angry and frustrated as its protagonists. Without an answer, Morisseau leaves both them and us in the lurch, hoping for understanding. Writing is tight and vivid.
The company is terrific, each and every actor delivering from the gut. Time passes quickly with nothing less than riveted attention.
Namir Smallwood and Karen Pittman
Director Lleana Blain-Cruz handles the mostly empty stage with its three-sided audience aware of every turn and view. Eruptions grab and startle, wrenching but never over the top. Stress and vulnerability are as palpable as Nya’s mother love. Beautifully executed.
Matt Saunders stark Set is aptly familiar and unnerving.
Intermittent video of teenagers in ghetto public schools covers a large, back wall adding further anxiety as it candidly captures volatile atmosphere escalating to violence. We watch appalled and mesmerized. Hannah Wasileski – Projections
Justin Ellington’s Sound Design, whether obvious or subliminal, contributes immensely to mood.
Photos by Jeremy Daniel
Opening: Namir Smallwood, Karen Pittman
Lincoln Center Theater presents
Pipeline by Dominique Morisseau
Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz
The Mitzi E. Newhouse
150 West 65 Street