New York City Theater
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater
You don’t need to know Richard Wright’s scorching 1940 novel, “Native Son,” to appreciate “Pipeline,” Dominique Morisseau’s striking new play with its character-rich dialogue. But it helps.
A quick précis of the novel: Black, Chicago-slum-born Bigger Thomas, debased because of his race, is unable to escape his pre-ordained destiny. Having murdered a white girl, he’s sentenced to death but, at the end, faces his fate with the dignity that the world deprived him of.
In “Pipeline,” Omari, the son of Nya, a public school teacher, is caught in an obverse image of Bigger Thomas. When at his private school, a persistent teacher calls upon Omari to discuss “Native Son,” the student takes it as both condescending and aggressive. “Like I’m the spokesperson.,” says Omari, “like I’m Bigger Thomas.” Lashing out, he faces expulsion for shoving the teacher, finding a sympathetic ear in his no-nonsense girlfriend, Jasmine, who also feels an unwanted misfit in this WASP school.
Meanwhile, Nya, struggling to keep her son in the private school, has to deal with her own problems. Where she teaches is a nest of vipers, with students fighting and not learning. Further, she has to keep on the good side of her divorced husband who’s helping pay for Omari’s education.
In the public school, another teacher, Laurie, has herself been assaulted. Ranting about the difficulties of instructing her classes, she berates the friendly security guard for not reacting quickly enough when called upon to quell a brutal student-to-student fight.
Although the play’s tension is high, a lot of strands need tying together. Since the naturalism doesn’t play out by itself, we need to witness the confrontations, most of which take place offstage. We’re told more than we see, as in lines like the pragmatic Jasmine’s assessment of Omari, that he’s “a lunar eclipse . . . rare and hiding in the shadows of the earth.”
Lileana Blain-Cruz’s direction flows with such agility that you’re swept along past even the most uneven spots. The cast is exemplary: Heather Velzaquez as the straightforward Jasmine, chafing under perceived tokenism, Namir Smallwood as the lost Omari, Tasha Lawrence as the tough Laurie, Jaime Lincoln Smith as the empathetic guard and Morocco Omari as the blustery ex-husband.
Karen Pittman has a memorable turn as Nya. Confident but insecure, angry but placating, loving but wary, Pittman finds the colors of a woman on the verge of panic attacks, someone determined to save her son from the oft-repeated pipeline of school to jail.
When she teaches Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem, “We Real Cool,” Nya balances its deeper meanings and inherent bleakness (“We die soon”) with the joy of explicating it. A dedicated teacher, a worried parent, she fully understands that like Bigger Thomas, Omari’s “rage is not his sin. . . . It’s his inheritance.”
--David A. Rosenberg
August 2, 2017