Dominique Morisseau has been cutting a wide and spectacular path through the writers’ ranks, as executive story editor on Showtime’s Shameless and as the author of The Detroit Project, a trilogy of plays including Skeleton Crew, recently presented in a knockout production by the Atlantic Theatre Company. With Lincoln Center Theater’s smashing world premiere of Pipeline, which opened Monday at the Mitzi E. Newhouse, Morisseau confirms her place in the sphere of writers not to be ignored.
The title refers to two different kinds of institutionalized segregation. In the first, “gifted and talented” students are culled from the public-school crowd and given accelerated classroom experiences. The second refers to the schools-to-prison syndrome that plagues poor, mostly inner-city, and mostly African-American families. That appears to have been the fate in store for Omari (Namir Smallwood, a Steppenwolf-trained actor in a sensational Lincoln Center Theater debut), whose recently divorced parents have separated him from public schools and shipped him off to prep school in the hope of improving his chances of avoiding one kind of pipeline and benefitting from another.
Omari’s mother Nya (Horace and Pete‘s Karen Pittman, best known on Broadway for Passing Strange) teaches in one of those public schools, clearly modeled on one in New York City, where a foundering system has seen neighborhood institutions carved up into fiefdoms in which charter schools share space with tragically underfunded public school classrooms.
The play opens in Nya’s empty classroom, where she’s leaving a too-long phone message for her ex, Xavier (Empire’s Morocco Omari). Their son has had an “incident” that led to suspension and possible expulsion: In English class, where they have been reading Richard Wright’s Native Son, the white teacher has pushed Omari too far in trying to engage him in discussion, ignoring his requests to be left alone. A physical confrontation resulted, caught on video by other students.
There are so many issues at play here, it would be difficult to untangle them all were it not for some clear-eyed plotting by Morisseau and deft staging by Lileana Blain-Cruz. Omari, financially supported by an otherwise absent father, seethes with a near-lethal combination of rage and desperation to be heard, to be understood: “I could smell when I don’t make sense to somebody,” he says. His girlfriend Jasmine (terrific Heather Velazquez) understands what it’s like to be a token in an alien environment, expounding with electrical zapping on the culture they’ve been dropped into.
Nya is desperate to protect her son but struggling with her own life in a school ravaged by violence. (Hannah Wasleski’s projections, cast against the institutional walls of Matt Saunders’ sterile setting, purposefully garish in Yi Zhao’s lighting scheme, drive the point home with chilling accuracy.) Addressing her class on the subject of Gwendolyn Brooks’ shattering poem “We Real Cool,” Nya comes undone, all of the conflicts working on her from without and within ending up in a panic attack.
Morisseau has given every character – including Jaime Lincoln Smith’s cocky school security guard and Tasha Lawrence as Nya’s older, white, been-there colleague – genuine moments of grace with monologues that simply soar with specificity of circumstance and intensity of feeling. Pipeline is at once an homage to such authors as Lorraine Hansberry, Langston Hughes and Amiri Baraka and yet firmly the product of a unique, deeply resonant sensibility. What’s most impressive, however, is the voice the playwright gives to the two young people. This is a writer who has a flawless ear for the way kids see the world and their ability to navigate it with surgical eloquence. I believed every word they spoke and where it came from. That’s a rare achievement, indeed.