Dominique Morisseau’s new drama, Pipeline, at Lincoln Center is an emotional, turbulent roller-coaster that asks questions where there are no answers. Or are there? Controversial subjects such as the failing of the American education system, class, race, parental control, and restriction are boldly thrown in our face. We are sent into a dangerously congested, mostly black and Latino high school, where Nya (the remarkable Karen Pittman) is a teacher. She has just learned that her son beat up a teacher and this tiger-mom is desperately trying to hold it together to save her son from the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
Nya’s school has teachers who are deeply committed, like Laurie (a hilarious Tasha Lawrence) who has just returned from having facial reconstructive surgery due to the parents of a failing student cutting her face up. Yet she is back to help. “I’m a white chick who has never had the luxury of winning over a class full of black and Latino kids, this is war,” states Laurie. There is also Dun (Jaime Lincoln Smith), a school security guard who actually cares.
Nya’s teenage son, Omari (Namir Smallwood, a newcomer who’s a star on the rise) is seething with rage despite the expensive private academy he attends. He feels the racism of his privileged environment. Omari explains to his girlfriend Jasmine (the edgy and spirited Heather Velazquez) why he’s so stressed and breaking up with her. Jasmine hits back with “Maybe you’re your own stress problem and I ain’t got nothin’ to do with it.”
Both Nya and Omari love literature and the language of poetry. Nya tries to instill the beauty of poetry to her students through Gwendolyn Brooks, the first black author to win the Pulitzer Prize. The beauty of writing angers Omari due to the fact that he grew up in a single parent family since his father Xavier (Morocco Omari), cheated on his mom and left. He sees how his mother diminishes every time his father walks into the room. However, both Nya and Omari need the checks that arrive regularly. Xavier claims he has always supported Omari, but except for the money Omari has all but been abandoned and he hates his father. The incident that has brought us here happened in English class, where they have been reading Richard Wright’s Native Son. The white teacher pushed Omari to engage in a discussion, ignoring his requests to be left alone. A physical confrontation resulted, caught on video by the other students.
Holding the play together is Pittman’s powerful performance, Ms. Lawrence’s humor and the bitterness in a young Mr. Smallwood.
Director Lileana Blain-Cruz allows the work to speak for itself and clears the actor’s way for a real, emotional connection.
Hannah Wasileski’s projections are the haunting images of the students. Their anger, hate, and rage spill out onto the bare gym that blares the blinding truth for us to see in the stark lighting by Yi Zhao.
There is raw power in this deeply tangled and beautifully constructed play.
Pipeline: Lincoln Centre, until Aug. 27th.