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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
For Pipeline, her world premiering debut with Lincoln Center, Morrisseau has again tackled a universal social problem from a personal perspective: the social problem being the all too common trajectory by African-American students from over-crowded, troubled schools to prison.
Each production of Morisseau's plays that I've seen has been blessed with an excellent ensemble to bring these characters and their inner conflicts and interactions to life and deliver that dialogue with a natural ease. Those blessings were doubled by having them well directed, by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. The Pipeline cast is again outstanding; and director Lileana Blain Cruz, like Mr. Santiago-Hudson, has found a theatrically satisfying way for the characters into the social and political points Morriseau is making for her characters.
Nya, the main character (a superb Karen Pittman) is an embattled single mother and dedicated inner city high school English teacher desperate to save her son Omari (Namir Smallwood, a moving performance even though Smallwood seems way past his teens) from becoming yet another dropout from school — and becoming part of an all too common nightmare. Her dilemma wouldn't hit home as powerfully as it does without the other complex, and for the most part believable characters, situations and locales Ms. Morrisseau has created.
The meltdown situation is this: Omari, an essentially smart and good kid tends to erupt into troublesome angry behavior (the short length details this only through hearsay). This tendency has turned even more troublesome at the prep school to which Nya and her ex-husband Xavier (Morocco Omari) sent him.
Over the course of the play's 85 fast-paced minutes we see Nya in the lunchroom and classroom of the inner city school where she teaches and Omari first got into trouble. The play also takes us to . a prep school dorm.
At Nya's school we meet her best friend Laurie (Tasha Lawrence), a dedicated white teacher whose opposition to administrative protocol has resulted in her being physically harmed as well as in a permanent state of rage; also on scene is Dun (Jaime Lincoln Smith), the African-American security guard who has more than a superficial interest in Nya. In the prep school we meet Omari's Latino girl friend Jasmine (Heather Velasquez) who seems to understand why Omari is so angry and at risk better than even his loving mother or the teachers and administrators of either school.
Both Velasquez and Lawrence are terrific and add some much needed humor to a play about an impossible to firmly resolve with a positively hopeful ending. But, while Velasquz delivers the vernacular of her motor-mouthed monologue and interchanges with Omari and Nya with terrifically authentic ease, she seems somewhat too wise to escape coming off as a thematic mouthpiece. Actually, the characters overall are somewhat too convenient stand-ins for the issues that inspired the play. Fortunately, the acting and staging is good enough to make us buy into seeing everyone as real flesh and blood people.
There are also detours to a hospital waiting room and Nya's apartment where we see her frustration and loneliness causing her to succumb to a heavy smoking and drinking habit.
Actually, two of the most effective scenes are in that hospital where Nya has been taken after experiencing a horrendous panic attack (an apparently chronic condition). It's in that hospital's waiting room that Morrisseu smartly and slyly fills us in on the back story of Nya and Xavier's divorce. We learn more about the marriage as well as the subliminal causes of Omari's angry outburst at the class about Richard Wright's novel Native Son.
As Hannah Waslieski's projections make clear, Pipeline could play out in any large city in this country, whereas Skeleton Crew and Paradise Blue where very Detroit-centric. However, it does fit the cyclical pattern of Ms. Morrisseau's exploration of issues particular to predominantly minority populated big city neighborhoods.
I found that the author reached a bit too hard for metaphoric lyricism in the way she has Nya envisions her own son during her lesson of Gwendolyn Brooks poem "We Real Cool" that ends "we die soon." Yet the lesson itself, with the words projected onto a blackboard is wonderfully pertinent and theatrical. As is true of everything about this play.
Note: The entire Lincoln Center Theater Review is devoted to Pipeline. Be sure to pick up a copy.
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Pipeline by Dominique Morisseau
Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz
Cast: Tasha Lawrence (Laurie), Morocco Omari (Xavier),Karen Pittman (Nya), Namir Smallwood (Omari), Jaime Lincoln Smith (Dun), Heather Velazquez (Jasmine).
Sets by Matt Saunders
Costumes by Montana Levi Blanco
Lighting by Yi Zhao
Sound by Justin Ellington
Projections by Hannah Wasileski
Stage Manager: Charles M. Turner II
Running Time: 85 minutes, no Intermission
Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater
From 6/15/17; opening 7/10/17;closing 8/27/17.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 7/13/17 press performance
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