Circle Theatre Players Present a Thrilling “Pipeline” with New Talent
Circle Theatre Players in Averill Park are presenting an urgent look at young Black men caught in what the play “Pipeline” by Dominique Morisseau asserts is an all too frequent path from school to jail with very little hope or chance of breaking the devastating cycle, regardless of the child’s upbringing or circumstances. It is being given a thrilling production, teeming with diverse talent and helmed by a preternaturally gifted Siobhan Shea in her directorial debut.
Ms. Morisseau is a leader of the new Black theater movement and a strong proponent of We See You White American Theater which prescribes an anti-racism path forward for American theater. She has a trilogy of plays set in her hometown of Detroit with one, “Skeleton Crew” scheduled to make its Broadway debut this Fall. This play is set in a troubled New York inner-city school and an upstate prep school where the lead character, Nya, given persuasive, protective voice by Rebekah Brisbane, has placed her son Omari, a sharp and truculent Majestic Tillman, to protect him from the dangers of her struggling, dangerous public school.
The play opens after some hall announcements placing us back in high school in mid-action. A violent incident has happened in Omari’s English class involving him and he is deciding what to do with his girlfriend Jasmine, Imani McCalmon, playing another transplanted youth who has more moods and convictions than you or she can keep track of. As he decides whether to run, contact his family or where to hide, she supports him unconditionally while constantly pushing her own case. She will have a terrific scene with Nya later in the play when the mother visits the school and Jasmine’s quicksilver nature drives Nya to one of her few outbursts in the play. McCalmon does superb work especially with her non-verbal gestures.
The entire cast is superlative. It is a terrific script about a subject that couldn’t be more relevant to America in 2021 but the excitement of this production is most forcefully felt in the performances and direction. Majestic doesn’t make a false move and his anger that can scald his parents is made all the more effective by his sweet reading of Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “We Real Cool” and especially his list of requests to his mother. Jon Lajas plays his father, Xavier, separated from Nya who enters the play late and has an instantly accessible well of complicated emotional history which he communicates effortlessly and forcefully with his jaw thrust out or a glance at his cell phone. He demands you don’t write him off as absentee which causes great friction with Omari.
In the teacher’s lounge is the always reliable David Quinones who can not be beaten when he has a part that suits him and as the high school security guard, Dun, who has his own past with Nya, he hits all the flirtatious, aggrieved and aggressive moments provided for him and sends them over the fence. Somewhat unbelievably, Kristin Crouch as the other teacher in the lounge, Laurie, is making her acting debut. She has not only presence but is compulsively watchable from her first moment on stage but her speed, vulnerability and humor are never more thrillingly deployed than in a late confrontation with Dun where she self-immolates with a wave of anger and hurt. Phenomenal.
Rebekah Brisbane works at a different speed than most of the cast which works well for Nya as she is navigating the treacherous waters of this weekend in danger of going under and for most of the play is unconvinced of the next right move beyond just finding Omari. Her outbursts and frustration are effectively made palpable. The warm center and abiding hope in the play resides in Brisbane’s relationship with Tillman and the two actors bond strong enough for you to begin to believe in an optimistic outcome.
An embarrassment of Capital Region theater riches so far? A red-hot play about the world we live in with an exceptional cast but what excited me, perhaps above all else, was the directorial debut of Siobhan Shea. She chose the play, performed a Zoom reading of it during Lockdown and pursued this in-person production, casting and orchestrating these combative scenes with humor and skill. She has a very fluid and resourceful theatrical imagination. She uses the whole stage and all that Sand Lake Center for the Arts has to offer her (evocative set design by Michael McDermott, lighting by Nicky Nealon, sound by Jacob Frisch and stage management by Molly Waters) from the door to the lobby, to the ramp and through the house. She has projections she designed herself that sting with literal interpretations of the play’s largest theme and even uses the actors as physical manifestations of the character’s inner turmoil asking David and Kristin to hold Majestic back during a speech, literally embodying his existential barriers. Wow. If the fuddy duddy in me wishes at times the players were more open to the audience or had a more active pursuit of what they want, he can just take a back seat today and just enjoy the awesome accomplishments on hand.
Chester Theatre Company extended their sold-out run of their Black student drama “The Niceties” last week and for my money, Circle Theatre Players’ thrilling production of “Pipeline” deserves the same full throated, enthusiastic acclaim and support with full houses. From the letter to White American Theater: “The elimination of racism in the theater is not up for debate. Become our co-conspirators in antiracism. Theatre is struggling through the challenges of this time, but we must be better when we return.” “Pipeline” is better. You really shouldn’t miss this one.
Through August 1