A mother and a teacher named Nya, dynamically portrayed by Andrea Harris Smith (Round House Theatre’s Small Mouth Sounds) stands before us, stressed and conflicted, pleading from her broken tired heart a message to her ex-husband and father of her young male child. The words and anxious emotions instantly connect, and we feel her trembling frustration in every exhale. Fear and confusion surge out of voice as she attempts compassionate engagement with her ex-husband regarding their child. She’s frightened by what has happened. And scared of its deeper meaning and its impact going forward. Her conflicted tense connection to her past marriage almost strangles her attempt, causing her to step back, rethink and adjust herself. Trying with some difficulty, this strong woman returns to the powerful teacher and mother she wants to see herself as. It’s an electrifying first few minutes, gearing us up for this equally compelling play, one that borders on the cliche but never falls victim to the trap. The writing is too crisp, and the cast doesn’t dare let it fall. They hold us steadily in the perplexing maddening societal stare of Pipeline, the latest play by Dominique Morisseau (Signature’s Paradise Blue) now playing and extended through February 23 at the Studio Theatre, D.C. She dares us to look away, knowing that we won’t be able to, if we truly want to understand.
The searing and brilliant play, directed with a strong guiding hand by Awoye Timpo (Vineyard’s Good Grief), surges forward, drenched in the anxiety and passion of what it means to be a loving Black parent trying to protect, guide, and raise a young Black child in America. Surrounded by startling video images of violence and aggression, Pipeline resonates with a power that seeps onto the stage and envelopes the characters with frustration and potential defeat. They tell an unsettling story all on their own, one that builds and defines itself throughout this challenging story. The projected violence, designed with flashes of intimate tension by Alexandra Kelly Colburn (Studio Theatre’s The Hard Problem) illuminate, as does the perfectly attuned set designed with stark skill by Arnulfo Maldonado (LCT’s The Rolling Stone), matched with strong authentic costuming by Sarita Fellows (Cherry Lane’s Original Sound), a stark lighting design by Jesse Belsky (Studio’s The Effect), and a solid but sometimes distracting sound design by Fan Zhang (IRT’s Pumpgirl). The images and the text sometimes clash and startle, pulling us out of the complexities of the moment, but they are all searching for meaning in the bright blinding rage. Not necessarily his rage, but ‘the’ rage; the rage of the Black American trying not to be pushed down the proverbial pipeline that Anna Deavere Smith also so eloquently explored in Notes from the Field. The imbalanced power struggle and push-back needs to be seen, maybe as something more or other than just that ‘kind’ of rage. It needs to be seen as a whole, outside of societal conventions. To be seen as human and real.
A poem of such power by Gwendolyn Brooks is recited, and explored within Nya’s classroom. One from an edition by Harper Collins, a commercial white-owned publisher, and another by Broadside Press, an independent Black press in Detroit that embraces the rule-challenging graffiti-style edge that Brooks had intended. The scene is tight in its deconstruction and explanation but rather poorly technically projected. To be seen side by side is where the sharpness lives, and the comparative presentations fly hardest. That ideal, not embodied here as they are separated; projected on the walls across from one another, demonstrates a complication where whiteness attempts to absorb and appropriate Blackness. In that contrast, it burns the deepest, where all its lean provocative meaning cannot be denied. “WE REAL COOL” cascades with an incredible power when taught with such insight. It emblazons the dynamic and therefore we cannot take our eyes off Smith’s Nya as she is swept up in its inner tremor.
A question is asked, somewhat abstractly. Rather than wondering why the boys in the poem are not in school, Brooks searches for the conflicted feelings of rage and fear that reside inside them, much like how the young son in Pipeline so desperately wants her mother to investigate and see something else inside his troubling rebellion. The playwright and the poet dare to ask where the seed of anger and spark of uncontrollable violence is sowed in the soul of a Black American man. And we lean in hoping to see at least a glimpse of an answer to a complicated question.
The other piece of literature that plays a central role in this engaging drama is one by Black-American author, Richard Wright titled Native Son. It tells the story of a young Black man living in Chicago’s poverty stricken South Side in the 1930’s. The novel suggests there is no escape from the constant state of terror, mainly due to social conditioning, social injustice, and inevitability of the disenfranchised towards self-destruction. Nya’s son, Omari, intensely and passionately played by Justin Weaks (Ford Theatre’s Fences), feels badgered and singled out by his teacher because of this story. To him, it feels like the teacher within the well appointed private school he has been sent only sees him as one thing, not as a whole. Is the displacement of this young man the same social set-up for the inevitable, as would have been the case if he had stayed in his own neighborhood, surrounded by like minded men, and attended the same public school that Nya struggles to teach within? What will ‘save’ him and not condemn him? wonders Nya, in a world where no instruction is given by anyone.
It’s a compelling idea, that is most forcibly stated by Omari’s girlfriend, Jasmine, a strong philosopher of stereotypically ghettoized human conditions, enliveningly portrayal by the solidly clear Monica Rae Summers Gonzalez (Cherry Lane’s The Siblings Play). “I got more bitchin’ to do…that was only half.” Her interactions with both him and later on with Nya are some of the most pointed observations that spiral outward with wild abandonment. She sees something that the others might be missing, possibly because she is that Latina teenage girl, sent from her own struggling neighborhood and familial surrounding to attend a well-heeled private school. She sees the way the others see her and her boyfriend, and she has no problem vocalizing her discontent. Maybe that will be thing that saves her.
Beyond the stellar work of the main opponents in this engagement, one of the best and funniest creations, even when it is coated in rage and frustration, is the work of Pilar Witherspoon (MTC/Broadway’s The Father) as the other teacher at the public school where Nya works. Laurie shakes the bones of that school staff room with her defiant rage and undying devotion to the task set before her; to try to teach these kids, against all odds, something of relevance and use. “It’s a war“, she states, and the teachers are flaying, but she is the firecracker that will get thrown into the middle of that battle, and she ‘fuckin’ knows it and embraces the challenge. So does Dun, the school’s security guard, forcibly portrayed by Ro Boddie (Public’s Socrates), who matches her fire and her fight, but from a different vantage point. Their chemistry is a spark waiting to blowup, and I only wish Boddie’s character was given a bit more to do, as it seems there is a lot more beneath his smile and stance.
The two-charactered scenes are what makes this piece tick with such wild lyrical poetry and authentic conflict. They are the dynamics that populate this dissertation on race, rage, and the Black Americans existence and tend to be the most powerful. The mother/girlfriend standoff is on fire with competition and a smart game of dodging bullets. The mother/son confrontations are rough but in a different hue, drenched in fear and confusion. They have a power of desperate need and instruction, feeling authentic and maddening all at the same time. Tears may come when Nya asks for help, and they may come again when Omari gives her the help she requested. But it is in the father/son battle where we get, not a glimpse, but a full-on stare of the layered frustration, desperation, and anger that exists inside of O. His father, Xavier, played by the handsome Bjorn DuPaty (Public’s Mlima’s Tale), doesn’t know what to do with that heaping of rage and hurt that is delivered with such clarity. It’s stops him, and us, in our tracks. The grown man, even as he sits one empty seat away from his troubled son, can’t take it in and finds he has to walk away. On one level it feels a tad over the top and cynically typical, but O’s explanation is delivered with an authentic perfect tremor and an unwavering honesty that there is no other way to see clearly. It finally makes sense. Maybe more so, then when I first saw the play at the Lincoln Center Theatre a few years back.
Pipeline “asks us to reckon with the promise of America and also recognizes the illusion of America” states director Timpo. The traps of the teacher’s pointed accusatory questions resonate fully, giving us conflicts that somehow don’t have any resolutions, at least not presently. The battles don’t have winners, only the opposite, and struggling in that quicksand is somehow seen as a hopeless act, and it shouldn’t be. “His rage is not his sin“, but “his inheritance“, Morisseau and Smith’s Nya tells us. It’s “deep, ugly, beautiful“. The scripture of instructions are delivered, and they are drenched in such a painful ache that all assumptions are swept aside. Nya’s energy and her embattled love are inspiring. Much like Laurie’s. And much like this play.
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