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Review: Dominique Morisseau Attacks The School-To-Prison System in PIPELINE

In December of 2015, shortly before her excellent drama SKELETON CREW opened Off-Broadway, playwright Dominique Morisseau essayed an article for American Theatre titled "Why I Almost Slapped a Fellow Theatre Patron, and What That Says About Our Theatres."

Namir Smallwood and Karen Pittman
(Photo: Jeremy Daniel)

In it, the playwright, who is a woman of color, describes confrontations between herself and a white woman who complained about her laughter and other audible responses while watching a play. Morisseau used the incident to expound on what she described as theatre's "white privilege and elitism problem." Click here for a link to her essay.

So the Playbills for her newest Off-Broadway drama, the also-excellent Pipeline, contain inserts titled "Playwright's Rules of Engagement," where she assures patrons they are allowed to "laugh audibly" and "have audible moments of reaction and response."

And Morisseau certainly gives viewers a lot to respond to. Like SKELETON CREW, Pipeline is a welcome addition to the recent deluge of Broadway and high-profile Off-Broadway plays dealing with contemporary political and social issues.

The title refers to the commonly used term "school-to-prison Pipeline," describing an environment of police supervision and zero tolerance in underserved public schools in urban minority neighborhoods that contributes to quickly funneling students into the penal system.

As a continual reminder of the atmosphere many American children are exposed to every school day, the tall blank walls of designer Matt Saunders' set are frequently blasted with designer Hannah Wasileski's projections showing real-life video footage of violent encounters involving students, teachers and police.

In the middle of this is Morisseau's central character, an English teacher named Nya (superbly textured Karen Pittman) who is doing her best to contribute any positive effect she can on her students. A key scene has her introducing her class (the audience) to Gwendolyn Brooks' poem "We Real Cool. The Pool Players Seven at the Golden Shovel," emphasizing how the Harper Collins published version is set in a standard layout while Broadside Press published it using a graffiti style that contextualized the piece and highlighted the poet's use of broken English.

That lesson in choosing how your culture is represented also reflects on Nya's decision with her emotionally distant, upwardly mobile ex-husband Xavier (Morocco Omari) to send their teenage son Omari (excellent work by Namir Smallwood) to a private school, where he's expected to assimilate into a privileged culture rather than excel as part of his own community.

As the play begins, Omari is in danger of being arrested after a physical confrontation with a white teacher who made him feel singled out during a discussion of Richard Wright's "Native Son."

Pittman and Smallwood beautifully play out Morisseau's gripping moments where Omari tries to deal with the rage inside him and Nya defiantly struggles to keep a calm, in control exterior as she tries to shield her son from the future she sees in so many of the young black men who enter her classroom every day. Particularly effective in director Lileana Blain-Cruz's tightly wound production are scenes where the audience physically sees how thoughts of Omari's socially institutionalized fate haunt his mother.

Heather Velasquez and Namir Smallwood
(Photo: Jeremy Daniel)

Three additional characters fill out the atmosphere and offer realistic moments of humor. Tasha Lawrence is a blast as the brashly-opinionated Laurie, a white life-long teacher who has just returned from a hospital stay after having her face cut on the job. Her career is threatened when she opts to protect a child's life during a violent classroom outburst, instead of following protocol and waiting for help.

This angers the young black security guard Dun (Jaime Lincoln Smith), who, up until that moment, has been an easy-going, flirtatious charmer. Heather Velasquez terrifically shines as Jasmine, Omari's outspoken girlfriend who was also sent to private school by her parents to escape the Pipeline.

If Dominique Morisseau wasn't already established as one of the most exciting theatre voices that have emerged in this young century, Pipeline should surely confirm that status. Hopefully, she'll be one of the next playwrights making an overdue Broadway debut.

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