From Dominique Morisseau, the author of the critically acclaimed Skeleton Crew, Detroit ’67 and Sunset Baby, comes another powerfully provocative and riveting, but overwrought, play which investigates black rage, racial stereotyping, and parental mistakes. Just try to take your eyes off the high octane production by Lileana Blain-Cruz, which has been brilliantly cast with its six actors, all but Karen Pittman (the Pulitzer Prize-winning Disgraced) making their Lincoln Center Theater debuts. Morisseau may not have all the answers but she certainly looks at the questions from all angles. The play’s title is a reference to the metaphor for “the school to prison pipeline” that describes the blighted lives of so many ghetto youths who fail before they finish their education and was the topic of Anna Deavere Smith’s Notes from the Field seen Off Broadway last fall.
The play is not yet perfect though its wonderfully explosive scenes often give more than one point of view at the same time. While all the scenes are played at fever pitch, not all connect as well as they should. We see Nya in the teachers’ room at her ghetto high school where white teacher Laurie returns from medical leave after recuperating from an assault in the classroom. However, Laurie (played by Tasha Lawrence) is so volatile it is as though the rage of her students has rubbed off on her. Dedicated 100%, she still would not receive an award for teacher of the year.
We see Omari with his girlfriend Jasmine at his private school, the only other student of color. However, while the Latina Jasmine from an urban environment also feels she is completely at sea in this alien environment, she has a totally different agenda than Omari – or his mother – and she brings with her the values that she had acquired in the inner city. There are intimations that since her divorce, Nya has had a relationship with Dun, a sensitive and gentlemanly security guard at her school but we never know enough about this relationship to understand its place in her life.
Nevertheless, the acting and pacing are of a caliber to make you not notice the play’s flaws. Pittman spills her guts as Nya showing us a fully rounded character in all her dimensions. Her pain becomes ours. As her son Omari, Smallwood is articulate, intellectually curious – and in a state of rage. Sympathetic, we fear for his safety if he can’t learn to deal with his demons which become clear by the end of the evening. Lawrence as Nya’s colleague gives the kind of bigger-than-life performance that wins acting awards.
As the father and ex-husband of Nya, Morocco Omari demonstrates that emotional distance is not just physical and we come to understand a great many of his son’s problems. Jaime Lincoln Smith is magnetic as the security guard (not on a tenure track) who has a story of his own. He makes this secondary character quite appealing so that we can see what Nya sees in him. As the only other teenager depicted, Heather Velazquez as the loquacious Jasmine makes her presence felt as a ghetto teen who will never go unnoticed.
Matt Saunders’ setting for the Mitzi E. Newhouse turns the theater into a classroom with its huge brick back wall and olive green institutional door which is aided by Hannah Wasileski’s video projections of violent student behavior in a public high school. However, Saunders also makes the stage work for the less public scenes in Nya’s apartment and elsewhere. Yi Zhao’s lighting helps with the transitions between the ten scenes, while Justin Ellington’s sound design adds verisimilitude. Montana Levi Blanco’s costumes define social roles as well as economic ones.
Like August Wilson, playwright Dominique Morisseau is not afraid to tackle big issues in the African American community but like Wilson she also perceives these topics with clear vision. Pipeline may infuriate you with its ironies and coincidences but it will also provoke you to examine the issues long after you have left the theater. The play is never less than spellbinding. Lileana Blain-Cruz’s staging keeps the whole event speeding along like greased lightning. The actors must be exhausted at the end of each performance. But you also know at the end that you have been engaged by a real theatrical event.
Pipeline (through August 27, 2017)
Lincoln Center Theater
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, 150 W. 65th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.lct.org
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission