WAM Theatre Educates and Entertains with Searingly Powerful “Pipeline”
“Pipeline” is an extraordinarily trenchant and emotional play about the school to prison pipeline that too many young black men fall into by getting into trouble at school, sometimes inadvertently, negotiating spaces dominated by whites.
Omari (the charming and virtuosic Hubens “Bobby” Cius) has come up against his third strike at the tony prep school upstate, Fernbrook, where his divorced parents have sent him for a safer school environment and its opportunities. After a disagreement with his teacher over “Native Son” and whether Omari will contribute to the discussion of Bigger Thomas’ motives, Omari has possibly shoved his teacher into the smartboard and it has all been caught on video.
Omari’s mother Nya (Alexandria Danielle King giving a towering performance) is a public-school teacher at an inner-city high school divorced from Omari’s father (Kevin Craig West, commanding and brutally funny in a one word response to his son’s challenge in their confrontation). Nya cheated on Omari’s father, and is given her own full plate of challenges in her single life.
Nya’s school is dangerous. Her co-worker Laurie (the very funny, sometimes inappropriately so Barbara Douglass) has a scar on her cheek after being slashed from a student, she is seeing the security guard Dun (the very effective and appealing James Ricardo Milord) a nice guy but perhaps not quite intellectually in her league, she is smoking and drinking to excess and still pining for her ex-husband. The scenes in her high school are grimly funny, describing substitutes ignoring lesson plans and instead showing the fourth season of “The Wire” as examples of what not to do.
The play by Dominique Morisseau is dedicated to the playwright’s mother, who was a public-school teacher for 40 years. It is clear that Ms. Morisseau is familiar with the territory.
There is a sweet scene with Omari and his girlfriend Jasmine (Sandra Seoane-Seri effervescent and generous with Omari, guarded with Nya) before he runs away. Omari has confrontations with his mother and father where you learn more and more about the altercation with his teacher, and especially his reaction to having feeling obligated to respond to the character of Bigger Thomas. Much of the play though is taken up with Nya’s struggles and fears of what might happen to her son; will he be another statistic that joins the school to prison pipeline? Her heartbreak is palpable.
There is a terrific scene where Nya breaks down and unpacks the poem “We Real Cool. The Pool Players. Seven at the Golden Shovel” by Gwendolyn Brooks. As she goes through the poem line by line using the audience as her class and inventing responses to her questions and prodding, her son is on the opposite side of the stage reciting “We real cool. We left school. We lurk late. We strike straight. We sing sin. We thin gin. We jazz June. We die soon.” It is a powerfully effective theatrical moment as the poem gets inside their heads and the stakes are raised on what will happen to Omari and all of Nya’s students. You also get the distinct impression that perhaps Omari would have been better off in his Mother’s class rather than Fernbrook.
Dominique Morisseau is a MacArthur genius fellowship award winner and is know for her collection of plays set in her hometown collectively known as Detroit Projects which include “Detroit ’67,” “Paradise Blue,” and “Skeleton Crew.” She has a fantastic gift for character and dialogue. Many of the scenes which may be considered on the periphery of her main themes, such as between Dun and Xavier in the hospital waiting room or between Jasmine and Nya where the mother is begging for information from the prep school girl, are very engaging. Laurie is also a great comic creation. The impeccably selected cast under Ms. Simmons incisive, fleet and entertaining direction do a terrific job inhabiting this world.
The set (scenic design by Shelley Barish) is stonewashed brick arches on the upstage walls which hold a few neat surprises transforming the space into a dorm room, a faculty lounge, an apartment or hospital waiting room. Director Dawn M. Simmons does a terrific job keeping the play moving, not just with her actor’s urgency in the two days that the script takes place in but also with the scenic elements (bed, table and chairs) that are being moved on or off by the actors as the scenes are taking place. We’re not waiting for three chairs to be set around a table on their spike marks before a scene has begun which increases the urgency of the piece.
WAM Theatre’s community partner is BRIDGE and they are co-producing the show with The Nora/Central Square Theater. Their beneficiaries are Harmony Homestead and Women of Color Giving Circle.
“Pipeline” is a compelling, powerful exploration of what we’re up against as a society and how we need to continue to make space and keep our hearts and minds open to where we are failing our most vulnerable. WAM Theatre in addition to its usual charitable mission has provided a tremendous public service with its production of “Pipeline.”