Theater review by Adam Feldman
The title of Dominique Morisseau’s new drama evokes the so-called school-to-prison pipeline, which Anna Deavere Smith explored last year in her solo documentary Notes from the Field. But the term itself does not appear elsewhere in the script. As Morisseau lays the issues out, in a play that sometimes suggests a dramatized essay, the challenges facing young African-American men—and posed by them—are less a single pipe than a whole semi-hidden network of frustration, resentment and bias. Attempts to stop the flow, no matter how well intentioned, might only reroute it through different channels to the same destination.
Karen Pittman plays Nya, a stressed-out English teacher at an urban public school. Even with security guards on the premises, including a flirty one played by Jaime Lincoln Smith, violence is not uncommon there; a teaching colleague (Tasha Lawrence, tough as a nail gun) has recently been attacked. Hoping to remove her teenage son, Omari (Namir Smallwood), from this environment, Nya has sent him to an expensive private boarding school, with financial assistance from her ex-husband (Morocco Omari). But he’s in danger of expulsion after assaulting a teacher who, he believes, singled him out unfairly in a discussion of Richard Wright’s Native Son, a novel about a black man who descends into violence.
Only 85 minutes long, Pipeline sometimes feels thin on elaboration, and not all of its scenes are effective; those involving Omari’s rebellious-romantic girlfriend (Heather Velazquez) have an unnatural ring. But in dealing with subjects overfreighted with the weight of representation, the play leaves admirable space for discussion—notably of the implicitly optimistic (if necessarily incomplete) “instructions” that Omari offers his mother, at her urging, about how best to deal with him. In a system clogged with rot, it’s encouraging to think that hope may be somewhere in the works.
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater (Off Broadway). By Dominique Morisseau. Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz. With Karen Pittman, Namir Smallwood. Running time: 1hr 25mins. No intermission. Through Aug 27.