By Sandi Durell
Playwright Dominique Morisseau has written an intense and powerful play that is thought-provoking, but nothing new. Do private school kids escape the violence and racisim so much a part of the inner city schools? And when it comes to troubled kids, from whatever socio-economic background, in single parent homes, are their troubles more or less significant and intense? So many issues and questions when Nya (the extraordinary Karen Pittman), a teacher at an inner city high school has chosen, with her ex-husband, to send their son Omari (Namir Smallwood, making his NY debut) to an exclusive private boarding school to seep up the privileges of the well to do.
We meet Omari and his girlfriend Jasmine (a refreshing Heather Velazquez as a poor Latina beyond her age – she of the can’t stop the often continuous -and humorous – flow of what’s on her mind is on her tongue truths) in the midst of a painful goodbye as Omari readies to run away from school. The encounter repeats but later between Jasmine and Nya (as she begs for help locating her son) in a revealing clash between the two women, later resulting in Nya’s panic attack landing her in the hospital.
Nya is in constant turmoil trying to better control her anxiety as an ex-wife, a teacher and mother protecting her troubled son and understand him and his extreme reactions at pushing his teacher against a blackboard in a confrontational probing, all caught on student cellphone cameras about to go viral (another issue given reference). In a highlight scene, Omari and his father Xavier (Morocco Omari) are embroiled in a raging battle of blame inspired by poetic references from Gwendolyn Brooks and novelist Richard Wright, whom Morriseau includes in the mix of riveting dialogue and in echoes.
More insights (but again nothing new) include Laurie (the sizzling Tasha Lawrence), a teacher, who has given too many years of her life to an educational system that endures the violence and rage of students who think nothing of bashing each other’s heads in (which Laurie tried to stop), winding up having her face slashed while trying to break up the fight; the security guard Dun (Jaimie Lincoln Smith) too late to the rescue because of protocols. Dun also appears to be the reason for Nya and Xavier’s divorce because of their affair.
The crux of the drama is about social injustice and our societal responsibilities, in all its futility. The play doesn’t always work albeit director Lileana Blain-Cruz does her utmost to flesh out the powerful portrayals accessorized by Hannah Wasileski’s projections of inner city school students in dingy hallways. The cast is compelling but the choice of Namir Smallwood (an intensely brilliant actor) appears miscast as he is too old for the role of a teenager. The title references the ‘school to prison pipeline’ – reminiscent of the iconic film Blackboard Jungle.
Scene changes are simplified at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater by Matt Saunders who allows for small furniture pieces (a desk, a table, a bed, a rug, chairs) to easily roll on an off, under Yi Zhao’s lighting with Justin Ellington’s sound design.
Pipeline continues at LCT thru August 27 – Runtime: 90 minutes
Photos: Jeremy Daniel