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Theatre Review by Howard Miller - July 10, 2017

Namir Smallwood and Karen Pittman
Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Black lives matter very much to playwright Dominique Morisseau, not just in terms of surviving the mean streets of America, but, far more deeply, with respect to the quality of lives relentlessly burdened by overt and ingrained racism and economic hardships. With empathy and intelligence, Morisseau is able to get beneath the skin of her characters, give voice to their pain and rage, and breathe them fully into life for an audience. She did this magnificently with last year's Skeleton Crew, which painted a heart-rending portrait of a group of floundering Detroit auto-plant workers, and now she has done it again with her latest play, Pipeline, which opened tonight at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater.

The play's title references the "school-to-prison pipeline," the metaphoric but sadly all-too-real pathway from juvenile scuffles with the law to incarceration. Pipeline hones in on a single family all but torn asunder following an altercation between a high school student and a teacher at the private boarding school that was supposed to be the saving grace for the teenager, Omari (Namir Smallwood).

Things have not worked out the way his parents, Nya Joseph (Karen Pittman) and her mostly-out-of-touch ex-husband Xavier (Morocco Omari) had hoped. It's not hard to see why Xavier, a tough-minded successful businessman, wanted to get Omari away from the hood and give him a boost up with the kinds of advantages an upscale private education could provide. In case we need reminding, projections by Hannah Wasileski give us glimpses of the public high school where Omari would have attended, including images of student-on-student fighting and harried professionals who are trying to control things.

As it happens, one of these harried professionals is Omari's mother, Nya, an English teacher at that high school. We get to see her at work in her classroom as she tries to encourage her students to think critically about the implications of a Gwendolyn Brooks poem, "We Real Cool," a work that comes up repeatedly in the production. There also are scenes that take place in the teachers' work room, where Nya interacts with the fiercely dedicated Laurie (Tasha Lawrence), a white teacher who has made the school and its students her life's work, but who is also at the end of her rope. Newly returned to her job after being injured, Laurie is now in trouble for not following protocol while breaking up a serious fight in her class. Also on hand is Dun (Jaime Lincoln Smith), one of the school's security guards, who has eyes for Nya but who also is depicted as a conscientious adult who strives to maintain order for the safety of all.

It is important for us to see Nya and Laurie and Dun as committed to the students, so that we get a real sense of what they are up against in a place where, as Dun puts it, "the source of those fights is older than the bricks in this building." But Nya's greatest concern is, of course, reserved for her son, Omari, whom she seems unable to reach and for whose future she worries endlessly about. She has cause for worry; the resentful Omari's wrangle with the teacher is his third incident at the school, and he faces expulsion and even arrest. Before she can even come to pick him up, he has run away (leading to a well-played back-and-forth between Nya and Omari's girlfriend at the school, the self-aware Jasmine (Heather Velazquez),

Sadly ironic is the fact that Omari's teacher was also trying to instill some social justice awareness and genuine passion in his (one imagines, mostly affluent and white) students. The brawl between them occurred during a lesson focused on Richard Wright's novel Native Son and its protagonist Bigger Thomas, a poor, uneducated black man, barely older than Omari, who commits a violent act. The teacher's prodding of Omari to try to unpack the cause of Bigger Thomas's pent-up rage only succeeded in bringing out the teenager's fury as a young black man himself, feeling goaded into taking on the role of what he saw as the token spokesperson on behalf of his race.

As the narrative unfolds in the 90-minute, intermissionless production, so well acted under Lileana Blain-Cruz tension-filled direction, the play is just about flawless. The playwright is exceptionally adroit at peeling back layer after layer of meaning. She wants us to truly understand all of these characters, and she steadfastly refuses to allow any of them to wear the cloak of villain or victim.

Nya's gift is one of unconstrained love, but is it not enough (she, herself, suffers from a panic disorder). Xavier, Omari's father has only child support checks and ineffective toughness to offer ("I'm the father. You're the kid," he says. "You are going to respect me"). The teachers, regardless of race, want to empower their students to think for themselves, but they are helpless in the wake of so much anarchic lashing out.

The play ends with uncertainty. Will Omari be arrested for assault or will his mother's pleas on his behalf result in her being allowed to withdraw him from the boarding school and seek a new start? What hope we are left with is a sense that Omari has taken steps towards maturity, captured in a set of guidelines he has composed for his mother, and, really, for all caregivers and teachers. The first four are these: "One—Hear me out. Two—Let me chill sometimes. Three—Know when to back off. Four—Know when to keep pushing." From Omari's perspective, these are so obvious as to hardly warrant the telling, but for the adults out there (the kind who want kids to read Gwendolyn Brooks and Richard Wright), it takes a leap of blind faith to let their young charges go out into the world.

Through August 27
Lincoln Center Theater - Mitzi E. Newhouse, 150 West 65th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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