Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
As directed with subtlety and empathy by Awoye Timpo, the play immediately engulfs the audience in a student brawl outside a high school, through Alexandra Kelly Colburn's larger-than-life projection design and Fan Zhang's immersive sound. Arnulfo Maldonado has designed a bland institutional setting that becomes both the inner-city school where Nya (Andrea Harris Smith) teaches and the elite private school where she sends her son Omari (Justin Weaks).
Nya works with a population of poor, mostly minority students dealing with unfairly enforced disciplinary rules that punish misbehavior in a way that contributes to a "school-to-prison pipeline." She believes the solution lies in education: the heart of Morisseau's, and Nya's, philosophy is Gwendolyn Brooks' 1959 poem "We Real Cool," which sums up the lives of teenage boys who believe they have nothing to lose or gain. The bitter irony is that Omari has the advantages of a premium education, but it doesn't meet his needs either.
Weaks is deeply affecting as a young man whose privilege doesn't protect him, but Smith is the driving onstage force as a woman, a teacher, and a mother whose efforts to help amount to "fighting gravity." Providing dark comic relief are Nya's co-workers, a tough teacher (Pilar Witherspoon) who wonders whether corporal punishment has a role in the classroom and an affable security guard (Ro Boddie), while Nya's emotionally remote ex-husband (Bjorn DuPaty) and Omari's girlfriend (Monica Rae Summers Gonzalez) add other perspectives.