Providing insight into an important societal issue while also deftly exploring the stories of individual, well-drawn characters has quickly become the trademark of the extremely gifted playwright Dominique Morriseau (“Skeleton Crew,” “Sunset Baby.”). Her latest – and perhaps strongest work – “Pipeline,” now being given an exemplary production at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theatre under Lileana Blain-Cruz’s nuanced direction, continues that tradition brilliantly, leaving us alternately stunned, moved, horrified and enlightened at the plight of inner city youth and its teachers.
The show’s protagonist is ultra-devoted English teacher Nya Joseph (superbly embodied by Karen Pittman). From moment one, we realize that Nya is a tightly-wound woman on the very edge of unraveling – chain smoking, losing her place in class, failing to connect. She has sacrificed so much of her life to stay at her school and fight the good fight, which is just one reason her marriage to the upwardly mobile if uptight Xavier (a fine if not particularly sympathetic Morocco Omari) has disintegrated. (The other involves what sounds like a brief affair with school security guard Dun, played with a cunning mixture of surface joviality and barely-hidden rage by the excellent Jaime Lincoln Smith.)
However, Nya’s primary mental focus is on her teenage son Omari (a superb Namir Smallwood), whom she and Xavier have sent to a fancy private school to give him more opportunities in life. But Omari, who is full of rage at both the world and his parents, keeps exploding – and his life verges on self-destruction when he hits a teacher who he feels is targeting him during a classroom discussion of Richard Wright’s seminal novel “Native Son.” (Some familiarity with the book, while not necessary, is helpful.)
That incident not only forces Omari to confront his personal demons, but makes Nya question her decision to have sent her son away. While all too aware of the horrible conditions of the school she teaches in – as evidenced of tales of nearly-to-the-death fights between students – Nya must come to grips with the realities of Omari’s world, which almost leads to her own destruction. Watching this scenario come to life is devastating in Pittman’s razor-sharp performance.
While providing some minor comic relief, the play’s two other female characters also add immeasurably to Morriseau’s mosaic. Tasha Lawrence is magnificent as Nya’s long-time white colleague, Laurie, whose frustrations (to put it mildly) with the school system also bring her to the edge of ruining her life (even it means saving a student’s). Finally, Heather Velasquez is wonderful as Jasmine, Omari’s smart-mouthed and deceptively smart girlfriend at private school, who has also been sent there by her well-meaning parents, but feels as equally out of place as Omari.
Morriseau’s poetic language (it’s no coincidence that Nya spends her days trying to get her students to appreciate Gwendolyn Brooks) is a joy to listen to, but the playwright also knows when to have characters speak as plainly (and realistically and profanely) as possible.
In the end, “Pipeline” provides no easy answers on how to make the current educational system better; it simply provides a window into a life and place that would normally be barred from much of LCT’s target audience.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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Karen Pittman, Namir Smallwood, Tasha Lawrence, Morocco Omari, Jaime Lincoln Smith, Heather Velazquez
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater
150 West 65th Street
New York, NY 10023