BWW Interview: Karen Pittman Fights the Forces of The PIPELINE
Pittman says love for her character's son Omari (Namir Smallwood) is what drives the Lincoln Center Theater drama. Omari attends a posh private school where his anger erupts during a teacher's unprovoked tirade involving Richard Wright's searing novel, Native Son. Physical violence results. It's Omari's third infraction. His future is at stake.
PIPELINE, written by Dominque Morisseau, evokes public school through cascades of video: Hallways are jammed; students are boisterous. No wonder Nya seeks sanctuary in the teacher's lounge, as do the school's security guard Dun (Jaime Lincoln Smith) and colleague Laurie (Tasha Lawrence), who sports a bandage on her face from a recent altercation.
Gwendolyn Brooks' timeless 1960 poem We Real Cool about street kids at a pool hall rapping about a doomed existence, threads throughout the play. A hooded teen recites verses from the poem crossing the stage, and poem verses written on the board hauntingly appear and disappear.
"I love that poem," Pittman said. "It's one of my favorite things in the whole play. And the inter-weaving of that great American author Richard Wright makes the play so potent. It's haunting to think young African-American men are out doing this stuff. We're still talking about these things going on in society," Pittman said.
"The heart of the story is the relationship between mother and son, that's borne out of the love parents have for their children," Pittman said before a show. "It's an enormous, life-changing love that a mother has and Nya would take a bullet for Omari," Pittman said.
Nya and her ex-husband, Xavier, played by Morocco Omari, both want what's best for their son, but they have different styles of parenting.
"There's a special love that African-American mothers have for their sons. And the great loss of a child is heartbreaking. The play is about the Pipeline that takes kids from school into jail. It's about how society feeds into this," she added.
"The play winds you up emotionally, especially my scene with Jasmine, (Heather Velazquez) in her room. That scene captures an imaginative part for me as an actor," Pittman said. "Knowing a child of mine is out there running for his life.
"Nya is a mother trying to figure it out," she said. "She's a human being trying to grapple with her own desires. Sometimes when we look at our children we see ourselves."
Tense and anxious, Nya is a powder keg. In a crucial scene she implodes, in a physically draining sequence. How does she reach that pinnacle of emotion every performance?
"I empty out my mind before I go on," she said. "I meditate. Doing a play like this you want to immerse yourself in it and be a vessel for the playwright and the character."
Some might describe Nya's parenting style as tiger mom-ish. "I was raised by a kind of tiger mom before there were tiger moms," she said with a laugh. "An 'A' was okay but an 'A plus' is what was expected."
"I'm exploring ways of meditation for peace and happiness because in this business, everyone loves you one minute and reject you the next," Pittman said.
"I'm like an athlete with my headset sitting backstage," she said with a laugh. "I want to be available to the character and that allows me to delve into her with empathy." Pittman's current favorite CD is the soundtrack from the award-winning movie, Moonlight.
"I also warm up before the show for about 20 minutes to protect my voice," she added. "It doesn't help that Nya smokes. At first she smoked three cigarettes each performance. Now I'm down to one and a half.
"I don't eat meat and like to feel light when I'm out there," she said. "It's an amazing experience for an actor. Your body has to be prepared. I consider myself a craftsperson, it feels very athletic."
Her greatest inspirations? Her parents. "My dad was a teacher," Pittman said. "I always think of my mother, but I became my father. He had the presence of Sidney Poitier and the good looks of Obama. He was a distinguished black man who grew up during Jim Crow and became one of the more philosophical spirits in my life.
"In many ways Nya has given me both of my parents. I have the ability to access emotions because I'm so grateful to bring their spirits to life on stage," Pittman said. "The play is a gift."
Pipeline is playing at Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse, Lincoln Center Plaza. Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, sets by Matt Saunders, sound by Justin Ellington, lighting by Yi Zhao, costumes by Montana Levi Blanco and projections by Hannah Wasileski.