BWW Review: PIPELINE at Horizon Theatre Company
The "pipeline" of Dominique Morisseau's play Pipeline is the school-to-prison route drawn for young minority males from rough urban areas. And Nya, played by the talented Wendy Fox-Williams in Horizon Theatre Company's skillfully rendered production, is desperately trying to keep her son, Omari, from becoming another number to reinforce the distressing pipeline statistics. Nya teaches at a school where teachers sometimes get cut in the face with knives, where security guards, overworked and underpaid, stand at the ready, and where poems like Gwendolyn Brooks's "We Real Cool," a poem that powerfully announces the social problem wherein we are watching our young men of color as they "die soon," prophesy a very real fate for many of its students. But Nya doesn't send her son to that school. Instead, she sends him to a boarding school where maybe he has a better shot at escaping the well-journeyed path that many of the young men from his own neighborhood have taken. The play, a fair and angry indictment of social injustice, asks a number of important questions, and the gorgeous cast, under the adept direction of Atlanta-favorite Tinashe Kajese Bolden and Keith Arthur Bolden, and with help from an incredibly able design team, brings the indictment to powerful life.
As the play opens, we learn that Nya's son, Omari (Stephen Ruffin), is in trouble at his boarding school. When singled out by his teacher to explain Bigger Thomas's homicidal rage during a classroom discussion of Richard Wright's Native Son, Omari, feeling attacked, singled out, stereotyped, declines to engage in the discussion and, when pressed, eventually allows his own rage to take over as he pushes his teacher into a chalkboard. This is Omari's third strike, and, besides expulsion, this could mean a one way-ticket to jail. Nya, devastated by Omari's precarious position, pleads with Omari to tell her what she can do to quell the rage that Omari eventually reveals is largely a byproduct of Omari's father's absence from the home. He sends his child support checks on time, but he isn't present, and the rage associated with that absence is a constantly bubbling stew in Omari's gut.
The cast members here, are, without exception, profoundly good storytellers. Wendy Fox-Williams does an admirable job of peeling away the many layers to reveal a frustrated and frightened and fully-realized Nya. Stephen Ruffin, playing Omari, is wholly believable in this role, and his emotional intensity is, at times, hard to watch - in an uncomfortable and just-right way. Vicki Ellis Gray, in the peripheral role of Laurie, a frustrated colleague of Nya's who has just returned from reconstructive surgery to repair her face after suffering wounds during a student fight, provides a great deal of laughter that feels organic rather than manufactured while simultaneously providing a grim portrait of the lack of support for teachers in urban schools. Other cast members - Asia Howard as Jasmine, Lamar K. Cheston as the very likable Dun, and Jay Jones as Xavier - are an exceptional supporting team.
The scenic and projection designs for this show are incredibly well-envisioned and executed. In Moriah Curley-Clay and Isabel Curley-Clay's functional design, Nya's classroom, a hopeless, windowless, airless box of industrial gray bricks with only an old desk as dressing, showcases the stark reality of Nya's world. Powerful projection designs by Bradley Bergeron provide the school-as-battlefield activity of the setting by portraying haunting razor-wire yards and manic and aggressive hallway fights. Projections of Gwendolyn Brooks's poem - progressively more choppy and hurried - keep us mindful of the social agenda of the play and of Nya's panic as a mother, helpless to save her son from a legacy of oppression. As other locations are introduced, the set folds out like an intricate puzzle to reveal a dorm room at Omari's school, Nya's apartment, a hospital waiting area, a teacher's lounge. And the set pieces are brought on and off by a sterile, guard-like team of movers who remind us ever so subtly of the pipeline from the title.
In the end, Morisseau's play is frustrating in that it presents such important questions and then answers none of them. In addition, the ending feels much less organic than the rest of the journey. But that doesn't keep this dissection of privilege and race and social injustice from compelling us to come together to find the answers that Morisseau is unable to offer up.
Pipeline plays through April 21 at Horizon Theatre Company.
For tickets and info, visit www.horizontheatre.com