Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Penumbra Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of The Hollow, Nate the Great, the Musical, Mean Girls and Aubergine

Erika LaVonn
Photo by Paul Virtucio
Dominique Morisseau's Pipeline, now at Penumbra Theatre, sears like bullet. It charges straight ahead from the moment we see Nya, an African-American high school English teacher on her phone to tell her ex-husband Xavier that their son Omari has been suspended from school for assaulting a teacher. Maybe he will be expelled. Maybe they will press charges. Maybe all their hopes and dreams for him will be shattered. The unseen bullet courses on throughout the play, tearing through Omari, Nya and Xavier, Omari's father, but its target is not any of them. It is a system designed to maintain social order, an impossible task since that social order is a mere stop-gap measure meant to hold back the fury and sorrow of inherited inequities and atmospheric rage.

The word pipeline, as used by Morisseau, refers to the school-to-prison pipeline often cited by education reformers and sociologists, the pattern of urban high schools failing to effectively prepare certain groups of students, notably black, Latino, and native male students, for the mainstream world of commerce and higher education, instead funneling them into a life where drugs, gangs, and crime seems to be the best—if not the only—available gig, and from there, down the pipeline and into prison.

The play does not suggest that the pipeline is a conspiracy. In fact, it shows good faith efforts to loosen its grip on young lives. Nya's says her school is improving. It's been divided into four small high schools within the building, a popular reform measure meant to create a sense of belonging among students. The administration has banned students from having electronic devices in class to eliminate a huge distraction from learning. Most of all, teachers matter. Nya delivers an amazing lesson on Gwendolyn Brooke's heartbreaking poem, "We Real Cool," and one of Nya's colleagues, a white teacher named Laurie, has dedicated her life to reaching the toughest of the tough in her classroom, even after needing reconstructive surgery following an attack by a student. Still, the pipeline is not shut off.

Because they fear the pipeline, Omari's parents scraped together the money to send him to an elite upstate boarding school called Fernbrook, with top notch credentials and a mostly white student body. It is all the more alarming that, in spite of this, Omari has gotten himself into dire straits. He is not spiraling down the pipeline—not yet—but for every tense moment of this ninety-minute play, that possibility weighs on his mind, and the mind of his terrified mother, and his father, whose distance from Omari may be abetting the pipeline's magnetic suction. Omari shares his feelings with the one person he believes understand him, his girlfriend Jasmine. She, too, is an African-American student at Fernbrook, who like Omari, is obviously smart enough to belong there, but does not feel she is a part of that world and resents having to pretend that she does.

For Nya and Xavier part of the challenge is co-parenting, to make decisions that are best for Omari without the reflexive blaming they cast at one another. We see this vividly with their use of pronouns: "Omari is your son," or "He is my son," even "He is the son," but rarely is he "our son." The scale tips toward Nya making the more sincere effort, Xavier being hampered by male pride. But it is not all black and white, and Morisseau makes sure to depict the challenges inherent for both parents in this stand-off.

Director Lou Bellamy draws authenticity out of the playwright's searing dialogue, revealing a sea of feeling beneath the words. One example: a scene in which Jasmine, her defenses against "snitching" on her beloved Omari disarmed, launches into a tirade against Nya, calling out her motherly love which, just like Jasmine's own mother's love, repels rather than protects their children. Jasmine's ability to articulate those feelings provides striking insights into the mindset of teenagers like Jasmine and Omari, and the challenge facing Nya, despite the ferocity of her love for her son.

Her ferocity is endowed with the force of a tidal wave by Erika LaVonn. As Nya, her mood is grim at best and in full blown panic attack at its most fevered. She does present a fount of positive energy when delivering her lesson, straining to hold steady, given the weight on her mind, buoyed by certainty of her value to her students. At the play's end, LaVonn's Nya makes a fully credible transition from the fury that has wracked her to an uneasy state of grace that allows a shard of hope to emerge. LaVonn's performance is beautiful work that will long live in memory.

As Omari, Corey Pullam superbly depicts an avoidant adolescent, seething with anger without any idea what to do with it. His vocal tones, his posture, his gestures, all are used to construct this critically damaged but not hopeless young man. Pullam shows us Omari's intelligence, and in spite of his defensive reactions, his deep affection for his mother, as well as the scorn for his father that he labors over, as if to satisfy a need to blame someone for everything wrong in his life.

Melanie Wehrmacher is a rabid spitfire as Laurie, determined not to let the brawls among students and insipid administrative protocols keep her from being a rock star teacher. Kiara Jackson is affecting as Jasmine, showing a girlishness along with a precocious understanding of the rocky road ahead. Her determination and realistic view of her life allow us to believe she will make it to the end. As Xavier, Ansa Akyea is persuasive as a self-confident, somewhat arrogant man, a success in business who thinks he can apply his acumen to parenting his wayward son—only to reveal the fragility beneath his veneer of male power. Darius Dotch is spot-on as a good-hearted school security guard who tries to bring positive energy to his work, but cannot singlehandedly avert every disaster.

The poem that forms the basis of Nya's lesson is repeated throughout the play to chilling effect. Gwendolyn Brooks' words, published in 1960 to describe disaffected young black men of the 1950s, anticipates the social scourge infecting too many youths today. The poem also appears via projections, along with black and white video of chaotic high school scenes: overcrowded hallways, unruly lunchrooms, frantic schoolyards, with occasional sedate images of a school interior and an overhead view of a prep school campus, all the evocative work of Kathy Maxwell.

Vicki Smith's setting is primarily a cinderblock wall painted two-tone style, in two shades that each resemble vomit in the bedraggled school where Nya and Laurie strive against the pull of the pipeline day after day. At the school and in a hospital scene, announcements over public address are reminders of the mundane, functional world, and seem to mock the agonizing reality faced by the play's characters. Martin Gwinup's sound design also incorporates music during transitions that suit the grinding realities, while Mike Wangen's evocative lighting sharpens focus to keep the tension high throughout.

Two of Morisseau's other plays, Sunset Baby and Detroit '67, have previously been given stirring productions by Penumbra, and her play Skeleton Crew will be staged this winter by Yellow Tree Theatre in collaboration with New Dawn Productions. Penumbra Theatre and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival have co-commissioned a play, to be titled Confederates, from this white-hot playwright. On top of all that, last spring she was the first African-American woman ever nominated for a Tony Award as writer of the book for a musical, for the hit show Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations. Morisseau should be on any serious theatergoer's watch list.

Right now, the action is at Penumbra, where for the next three weeks you have the opportunity to be heartbroken, enlightened, enraged, elevated and amazed by the level of artistry by all hands involved in Pipeline. Not to be missed.

Pipeline runs through October 27, 2019, at Penumbra Theatre, 270 North Kent Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: Adults - $40.00, Seniors 62+ $35.00, College Students with valid ID - $15.00, one ticket per ID. For tickets and information, call 651-224-3180 or visit

Playwright: Dominique Morisseau; Director: Lou Bellamy; Scenic Design: Vicki Smith; Costume Design: Mathew LeFebvre; Lighting Design: Mike Wangen; Sound Design: Martin Gwinup; Projection Design: Kathy Maxwell; Props Design: Abbee Warmboe; Stage Manager: Mary K. Winchell; Assistant Stage Manager: Charles Fraser.

Cast: Ansa Akyea (Xavier), Sabrina Diehl (voice of Carolina Diehl), Darius Dotch (Dun), Kiara Jackson (Jasmine), Erika LaVonn (Nya), Kory Pullam (Omari), Melanie Wehrmacher (Laurie).