Every character in Pipeline is angry, and few of them can articulate why. The inciting incident in Dominique Morisseau’s searing drama happens offstage, and we hear several versions of it as the play unfolds. Each retelling provides more context in the last, until finally the source of anger comes into view. On one level, Pipeline is about the inadequacies of our current education system, particularly for young black men, but it is more about how no one can escape the original sins and biases that have shaped American life for centuries. Yes, this is about a black student who strikes his English teacher. It is also about that student’s inherited trauma.
Director Awoye Timpo and set designer Arnulfo Maldonado create an austere stage space. They borrow chairs that belong in forgotten classrooms, or maybe a shabby dorm. This has a way of refocusing attention to the actors, whose performances are all vibrant, intelligent, and bitter. Omari (Justin Weaks) is the student who struck the teacher, and Nya (Andrea Harris Smith) is his terrified mother. Smith plays Nya as a bundle of nerves and resignation: she and her ex-husband Xavier (Bjorn DuPatty) enrolled Omari in private school, and since criminal charges are a possibility, Nya worries the system will turn Omari into another statistic. Nya is also a teacher, except she works at a struggling public school, so she has seen how many students can be treated with indifference.
In just over ninety minutes, Morisseau jumps around many different perspectives and characters. She finds comedy in Omari’s Latina girlfriend Jasmine (Monica Rae Summer Gonzalez), gently (but not too gently) looking at the contradictions and intense passions of teenagers in love. Jasmine tries to cajole Omari into telling her what happened, but he won’t budge. His real audience – the people who need his explanation – are his parents. These separate, sustained scenes are the centerpieces to Pipeline, and it is interesting to see how Omari differs the retelling between his father and mother.
Turns out Omari was being bullied by his English teacher, with him using Richard Wright’s “Native Son” as a way to provoke him in a racially-charged way. You may recall that Bigger Thomas, the tragic hero of “Native Son,” does not have a father, so Omari’s estrangement from Xavier comes with a sense of inevitable hopelessness.
The scenes in Nya’s school are what give Omari’s fate such a sense of urgency. Nya works alongside fellow teacher Laurie (Pilar Witherspoon), and security guard Dun (Ro Boddie). Mostly they blow off steam in the break room – Laurie genuinely feels that she is at war with her students – while Dun is less cynical about his role. All this culminates in a fascinating scene where Laurie feels she has no choice, and rationalizes how she hit her students to break up a fight. Morisseau does not take sides here, and instead lets Laurie’s mix of exhaustion and amped-up adrenaline show that, yes, sometimes these kids are so dangerous that physical intervention is the only recourse. Omari is the subtext here, of course, and his capacity for defiant self-reflection is where the play finds it heart.
On top of “Native Son,” another significant African-American author is referenced in Pipeline. There is a remarkable monologue where Nya addresses her class, discussing the Gwendolyn Brooks poem “We Real Cool.” Not only does the scene function is a thought-provoking literature lesson, but the poem’s subject matter – young men who are resigned to the absence of a future – still matters today, even though it was first written over sixty years ago. Morisseau’s dialogue is eloquent and staccato, with a heightened sense of realism, and Timpo heightens up the tension throughout the play. That is, at least, until the final scene where Omari and Nya come to a détente. Pipeline does not pretend to have answers, especially since boys like Omari are not so lucky to have mothers like Nya, although it has the wisdom to see that empathy and trust is necessary, since the system has no time for either.
Pipeline as at The Studio Theater until February 16. Buy tickets here!