Walking wounded search for healing in Dominique Morisseau's 'Pipeline'
LENOX — Nya, an inner city high school English teacher who is at the center of Dominique Morisseau's uneven "Pipeline" — which is being given an uneven production by WAM Theatre at Shakespeare & Company's Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre — is living on the edge.
"I'm slipping off the edge of the earth and there is no answer in the dark dark universe," she tells her colleague and friend, Laurie, during a lunchtime conversation in the teachers' room.
"The world isn't flat Nya," Laurie replies.
"Mine is, Laurie," Nya says. "It's flat and coming to a quick and fast end. And I can't stop it."
And later in a conversation with her son Omari's girlfriend, Jasmine, a desperate Nya acknowledges that as her life and her son's life appear to be going off the rails, it is all she can to to remain calm."I'm trying not to unravel. Unleash," she says.
Small wonder. The inner city school in which she teaches is a contemporary blackboard jungle, barely held together within a broader educational system that is becoming increasingly unbalanced and fractured every day. Laurie (played by Barbara Douglass a with rich blend of anger, frustration and a certain cynicism) is back at work for the first time in weeks after having been attacked by the angry parents of one of her students. It is not the last time in "Pipeline" that Laurie will be caught in an act of spontaneous violence that is emblematic of the frustrated and the bound.
To give her son a fighting chance, Nya (played with affecting nuance and insight by Alexandria Danielle King) and her ex-husband, Xavier (sharply played by Kevin Craig West) — a successful marketing executive who provides for Omari financially if not emotionally — have sent Omari to a private school, Fernbrook Academy (doesn't the name just say it all?) somewhere upstate. But his adjustment there has been troubled at best. Now, he has been suspended and is facing expulsion for what is viewed as an assault on his English teacher. Omari tells his mother he was responding to the way the teacher singled him out for questioning during a discussion of Richard Wright's 1940 novel, "Native Son," in which a 20-year-old named Bigger Thomas, who lives in the depths of poverty in Chicago's South Side, faces the death penalty for brutally murdering a white woman after having assaulted another.
Hurt, resentful, angry, confused, in deep pain, Omari (Hubens "Bobby" Cius), in one of the play's and this production's more volatile, wrenching scenes, explains the incident to his father, holding nothing back, relating the full context. For Xavier, the depth of his son's feelings about him; Omari's reaction to what he sees as abandonment, his resentment of the ways in which his father treated his mother, is unexpected and devastating.
"You know most of these dudes want their ol' man in their life so bad," Omari tells his father. "But what's having you in flesh? Flesh ain't s---. It ain't no different than sperm. It's clinical. It does the biology. It don't do the soul."
"I know why Bigger Thomas did what he did and I hate that I know," Omari says with intense bitterness a few moments later. "But I hate you more. You I hate most of all."
Omari is struggling to find his place, his identity in a society that insists on viewing him through a veil of prejudice and assumption. He's been sent to a school for privileged white teens where he stands out not because of academic achievement but because of his race. He lives with his mother when he is not at school and he has built a relationship with a classmate, Jasmine (Sandra Seone Seri), who is dealing with her own issues of place, self, authenticity. "I keep tryin' to explain to them [the other students] that someone like me would actually survive better in an environment in which I am comfortable instead of being the token poor girl of color that everyone thinks is trying to sleep with their p---- ass boyfriend ... "
"Sometimes people push you too far," she says later on. "Make you feel like an animal from another jungle. Like you don't belong even when you're here. Cuz they got expectations that you of the wild. So you become the expectation."
Authenticity is key. Nya touches on it — more than touches — in an expertly layered scene in her classroom as she deftly takes her class through Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks' "We Real Cool. The Pool Players — Seven at the Golden Shovel." She compares two published versions of the poem, one from a well-known "White American company," Harper Collins, with its common familiar formal layout that, Nya says, feels "almost an attempt to erase the idea that the piece is written in 'broken English.'"
The other version, published by Broadside Press — "one of the first major publishers of Black revolutionary writers," she explains — breaks up the verses and uses a font that captures the form of graffiti because, she says, "graffiti writing reps the hood." More than that, Nya, explores a deeper meaning that catches the troubling nuances of just how and why school-age boys are spending their afternoons in a pool hall rather than a classroom.
Nya will go to the barricades for Omari. "I would die [for you] if you could be born again without this oppressive rage," she says to him in a deeply moving scene in which this expert teacher who sees herself as a failed mother exposes her vulnerability to her son.
Without guideposts, alone, isolated, gripped by fear for her son's safety in a forbidding society, Nya pleads for her son's help. And at once, their respective journeys are joined as Morisseau holds out the possibility that, in the midst of this perilous terrain, hope survives.
Both Morisseau's play and director Dawn M. Simmons' intermissionless 90-minute production struggle to find their footing. Morisseau takes her time laying out the groundwork and so does the production, especially in an early scene beween Cius' Omari and Seri's never-quite-fully-formed Jasmine share a scene in her dorm room that, at least at the performance I attended, could barely be heard, let alone understood.
Once the dots start connecting, roughly halfway through, Simmons' production feels less a loosely connected series of scenes than a volatile, deeply affecting portrait of a group of walking wounded in need of healing.
The undercurrents in the relationships among and between Morisseau's characters begin standing out in bas relief as the show progresses. Things not said loom large — the hint, for example, of something past between Nya and Dun (convincingly played by James Ricardo Milord), a school security guard who is as much at the affect of a broken system as is anyone else in "Pipeline"; the intricate dynamics of an estranged couple attempting to safely navigate the shoals of what's left of their broken relationship as they try to do what's best for their anguished son.
Simmons' production plays out against a background of video projections — some indicated by Morisseau; others of Simmons' invention — that are intentionally jarring and chaotic, and, at the same time, disruptive and intrusive.
At its heart, "Pipeline" is about a variety of journeys, primarily those of a mother and of her confused 18-year-old son; journeys that, as they move toward a mother-and-child reunion, suggest that hope need not be part of the collateral damage on the battlefield of life.
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