Review: A Mother Fervently Tries to Protect Her Son in ‘Pipeline’
The teacher is trying to explain a poem to her class, but an echo keeps getting in the way. The echo, which reiterates words by Gwendolyn Brooks about young black men marking time on their way to an early grave, comes with a face, which only the teacher, named Nya, and the audience can see.
This phantom has the voice and visage of a lanky teenager who is still very much alive, Nya’s son. And this ghostly, reproachful recitation of Brooks’s elegy to doomed youth shatters the composure of a woman for whom self-possession is as essential as oxygen. The words on the blackboard behind Nya magically erase themselves, and she finds herself sliding out of consciousness.
That haunting rendering of a panic attack provides the strongest moment in “Pipeline,” Dominique Morisseau’s passionate but frustratingly unresolved play about a family struggling to outrun social prophecy. It’s a scene that captures the wrenching sense of helplessness that pervades this intensely acted production, which opened on Monday night at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center.
The play’s title refers to the “school-to-prison pipeline,” wherein underprivileged students are channeled directly from the public education system into American penal institutions. The subject was trenchantly explored in Anna Deavere Smith’s journalistic drama “Notes From the Field,” seen last year in New York at Second Stage Theater.
“Pipeline” offers nothing like the cleareyed overview that Ms. Smith’s work does. Social context is largely meant to be inferred, as if it is assumed we are already well acquainted with the history and implications of its title.
Ms. Morisseau is instead taking a more emotionally immersive approach, asking us to experience the profound feelings of exasperation — and worse, futility — that overtake a mother with a free-floating guilty conscience about her only child. Nya, played with razor-edged anxiety by a smashing Karen Pittman (“Disgraced” on Broadway), has sent her son, Omari (Namir Smallwood), away to a private school in hopes of circumventing the criminal future she fears for him.
Nya knows the toll that New York City schools in impoverished neighborhoods can take; she works in one of them. But the academy in which she and her ex-husband, Xavier (Morocco Omari), have enrolled their son has offered little salvation. When the play begins, Nya learns that her son has been suspended for attacking a teacher.
Omari’s girlfriend and schoolmate, Jasmine (Heather Velazquez), tries to explain his behavior: “Sometimes people push you too far, make you feel like an animal from another jungle”; at that point, “you become the expectation.”
Nya will wind up saying that her son’s anger is “not his sin; it’s his inheritance.” Throughout the play, she is cancerously consumed by the fear that Omari’s self-destruction is inevitable, and it is somehow her fault.
Directed by the gifted Lileana Blain-Cruz in a style that finds a feverish subjectivity within an almost clinical mise-en-scène, “Pipeline” lacks the driving coherence of Ms. Morisseau’s earlier work. But it confirms her reputation as a playwright of piercing eloquence. She bravely and repeatedly dives into the muddled shadows of social issues often presented in cold statistics and cleanly drawn graphs.
That spirit was manifest in the New York productions of her earlier “Skeleton Crew” and “Sunset Baby,” plays that combined the social conscience of Arthur Miller and August Wilson with a pragmatic awareness that moral questions aren’t always clear or answerable. “Pipeline” is more confused in its depiction of its characters’ confusions, and not every scene is equally resonant or convincing. (The conflation of Omari’s bad behavior, for example, with his resentment toward his father feels far too easy.)
Where the production excels, and most disturbs, is in portraying the bleak fatalism in which its characters appear to be steeped. Nya and her fellow school employees — Dun (Jaime Lincoln Smith), a savvy and dangerously attractive security guard, and Laurie (a fiery Tasha Lawrence), a battle-scarred veteran teacher — seem to regard their jobs as mostly a matter of keeping a tenuous peace in a combat zone.
Video footage (by Hannah Wasileski), projected against the institutional walls of Matt Saunders’s set, shows high school corridors as battlefields. And while Mr. Smallwood’s (excellent) performance suggests that Omari is a sensitive and intelligent young man, we are also asked to believe that he is always on the verge of a violent eruption that will derail his life.
His recent explosion (a “third strike” against school rules) was precipitated when his teacher, in a discussion of Richard Wright’s “Native Son,” pointedly asked Omari to explain the homicidal rage of that novel’s hero, as if of course he would know. For a young African-American, it would seem, there’s no escaping stereotyping, strangling perceptions, even in this Arcadia.
Nor perhaps even at home. Omari latches angrily onto his mother’s use of the word “tame” as she speaks of his need to control himself. He also notes that she appears to be conducting her life as if she were already in mourning for him. As for Omari’s prosperous but distant father, his absence has affected Omari as negatively as if the old man were in prison — or a crack den.
Though this production is starkly lighted (by Yi Zhao), it takes place mostly in a world unilluminated by hope. The sparks that are struck come from the rich dialogue. As always, Ms. Morisseau’s characters are distinctively expressive, and there are beautiful monologues of self-revelation by Nya, Omari and Ms. Velazquez’s uprooted boarding-school girl, who combines adolescent romanticism with a precocious awareness of how love usually ends.
Yet self-knowledge is not necessarily redemptive. And while “Pipeline” ends on a note of brighter possibilities than you might expect, the production is most potent in its despair. The subliminal music by Justin Ellington that is heard when the phantom Omari haunts his mother’s imaginings has a tug of dark, inescapable gravity.
Brooks’s poem, by the way, is the classic “We Real Cool” (subtitled “The Pool Players. Seven at the Golden Shovel.”). It proceeds in four mercilessly clipped stanzas from descriptions of a life of hedonism to the words “We die soon.” As Mr. Smallwood chokes on that last sentence, it harrows with the force of every mother’s nightmare.