At the center of Dominique Morisseau’s Pipeline is Nya Joseph, a teacher who works tirelessly to enrich the minds and improve the lives of her inner city high school students, aware that they are starting out miles behind their more privileged peers. As a mother, Nya, with the help of her estranged husband, has extracted her only son, Omari, from this system, sending him instead to the tony Fernbrook Academy—a decision that may not, in the end, work out in his favor. Morisseau’s engrossing but somewhat undercooked new play at Lincoln Center Theater offers a keen character study of a mother and son whose lives are imperiled by a reckless and passionate choice, but fails to fully integrate the specifics of Nya and Omari’s situation within the broader context of the school-to-prison pipeline that lends the play its title.
The play begins with Omari (Namir Smallwood) facing expulsion—and potential criminal charges—after committing a minor act of violence against one of his teachers. We are told in passing that this is Omari’s “third strike;” the other two are not explained, but as an inciting incident, the current problem is enough to make a question mark of his future. The cause of Omari’s outburst—feeling singled out as the token black student during a discussion of Native Son in English class, by a faculty member using cluelessly racialized language—is understandable, but Nya (Karen Pittman) cannot help feeling she is watching the dreams she had for her son dissipate as she waits in a tense limbo to learn his fate. She fears that he is “slipping down the pipe,” and she doesn’t know how to save him.
The realities of life for students of color in a place like Fernbrook are perhaps most clearly elucidated by Jasmine (Heather Velazquez, excellent in an underwritten role), Omari’s sometime girlfriend and one of the few other minority students there. She tells Nya that “you send us here to make us different people,” a thread of thought that Omari picks up in a tense altercation with his mother after he returns home: “I wonder who I would be if I stayed here in our neighborhood,” he asks. The play wrestles with this question of whether, for students like Jasmine and Omari, the deck is stacked against them wherever they go.
Pittman has shown herself to be one of New York’s most interesting and intuitive actors, as shown when she gave true inner life to the sketchy and frankly stereotypical Jory in Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced on Broadway. It is no surprise that Pipeline is at its best when she and Smallwood—a Steppenwolf Theatre Company Ensemble Member making an astonishing local debut—are at its center. Nya is a mammoth role; Pittman is onstage for nearly the entire play, and she must shift constantly between poise, panic, outrage, and equilibrium. She handles these swirling emotions beautifully, and her level of motherly devotion is absolutely unquestionable. Pittman subtly foregrounds a torrent of pain lurking just beneath the surface that renders one of the play’s late revelations utterly believable and quietly devastating. But her Nya is more than merely mother-as-martyr: she refuses to excuse Omari’s actions, although she understands the psychological impetus behind them.
In his thirties, Smallwood does not convincingly read as a sixteen year old, but he so precisely captures the aching emotional instability of adolescence that you can’t help but suspend disbelief. He shows us how this young man’s spirit was broken by the pressures of his mother’s faith in an elite private education, or “the false god of Fernbrook Academy,” as well as the hopelessness he feels in the aftermath of his latest transgression. He also lets us see Omari’s fierce intelligence, most clearly illuminated in a recitation of Gwendolyn Brooks’ classic poem “We Real Cool” which he delivers, stalking the stage, while Nya lectures on Brooks’ pool players to her English class. In Smallwood’s reading, every word of the short, elliptical poem pulses with an uncomfortable sense of urgency. The unspoken truth is that Omari, or virtually any student in Nya’s class, could easily slip into the grim trajectory outlined by Brooks.
Morisseau is a socially conscious playwright who showed a fine ability, in her excellent Skeleton Crew, to burrow deep into the macro and micro levels of the stories she tells. Since both Skeleton Crew (a play about American autoworkers struggling to survive in a failing system) and Pipeline are on some level both concerned with national issues, it is surprising that she does not reconcile those elements as elegantly here. The theory that gives that play its title argues that many students, primarily minorities and the economically disadvantaged, are criminalized rather than cared for by the educational system; a series of projections (designed by Hannah Wasileski) that play during scene changes show the militarization of American schools, with students passing through metal detectors and armed security guards and police officers slamming teenagers to classroom floors. Omari’s situation and its possible ramifications represent how even in more rarefied spaces, the pipeline still exists; Morisseau, however, doesn’t always follow through in connecting the micro-level reality that Nya and Omari face to the macro-level reality of an institutional system that is hostile to its most vulnerable charges.
Another issue is that while Nya and Omari are sharply rendered throughout, the play’s ancillary characters are fairly two-dimensional. Jasmine’s primary function is to confirm Omari’s experience as a minority student at a white institution. Nya’s colleague, Laurie (Tasha Lawrence), is a grizzled veteran of the public school system, who rails against stereotypical portrayals of uplifting public school teachers in movies like Dangerous Minds and Freedom Riders, seemingly unaware that her gruff, borderline abusive tactics are just as stereotypical. Dun (Jaime Lincoln Smith), the beleaguered school security guard, offers emotional support before snapping under the weight of his underfunded, under-appreciated position. Xavier (Morocco Omari), Nya’s ex and Omari’s father, is financially generous but emotionally absent. Morisseau uses tension between Xavier and Omari to set the play’s denouement in motion, but prior to that moment, we see so little of their relationship (or of Xavier’s character in general) that his presence primarily feels like a means to an end.
The play benefits from a strong physical production. Matt Saunders’ stark set, punctuated by a stark white-painted brick wall that spans the length of the Mitzi Newhouse stage, could easily evoke either a schoolhouse or a prison. The lighting (by Yi Zhao) is abrasively high key in school scenes, but softens in the play’s quieter moments, allowing for intimacy. Lileana Blain-Cruz directs with a sense of fluidity that mirrors her frenetic characters—particularly Nya, who always seems to be dancing as fast as she can. These elements make for a finely oiled production, but I could not help feeling that Morisseau did not push the material to its limits. She reinforces the idea that the personal is political by cleaving what is ultimately an intimate family story to a larger societal conversation, but she does not fully convey how Omari’s experiences confirm the harsh truths faced by far too many young people in the American education system.