BWW Review: Eloquent, Timely PIPELINE at Penumbra Theatre
Playwright Dominique Morisseau is a gifted rising voice in the theater, recognized with a 2018 Macarthur 'Genius' Grant. She has a brilliant touch with dialogue, especially in two person scenes: if you are an African-American actor looking for fresh scene or monologue material, she's a gold mine. She wrote the libretto for AIN'T TOO PROUD, about the Temptations, which is currently playing on Broadway.
Her straight play PIPELINE centers contemporary lives we see on stage too rarely: an anguished black mother trying to keep her teenage son safe, and her financially successful ex-husband, estranged from both of them.
Erika LaVonn gives a bravura performance as Nya. This is a big, juicy part, full of anguish. LaVonn is a veteran member of the Penumbra company. She's well matched by Kory Pullam as her high school aged son, Omari. Slight of frame, he has a big voice, and a deep well of rage and sorrow he can access readily. Ansa Akyea plays Xavier, the dad who's responsible for the decision to put his son in a boarding prep school in an effort to put him on a path to professional achievement in a white-dominant world.
The authenticity of these three performers is palpable; it hits the heart dead on. We'd know if they were just going through the motions in the small but hallowed Penumbra space. Under Lou Bellamy's direction, they are brave, providing complex, believable, unresolved conflicts born of love but equally acquainted with blame and even hate.
There are three other characters in PIPELINE. Kiara Jackson does a fine job playing Jasmine, a sassy and smart-mouthed black teen girl who is also very people smart. She and Omari have hooked up at prep school, and find comfort in each other as they try to navigate the halls of privilege. Darius Dotch plays Dun, a security guard at the big, failing, inner city public school where Nya teaches; he's got a good heart and an impossible job, at low wages. Least effective, both in the writing and in the performance, is Melanie Wehrmacher as Laurie, a white teacher at the same school, who has been on the receiving end of violence and delivers some before the show is over.
Because Morisseau drops us into both public and private school dilemmas for people of color, we gain insight into the deep inequities in our educational systems in this country, though this never feels like an 'issue play' for two reasons: there is no grasping for simple resolutions and the characters are so thoroughly imagined.
There is some real elegance in the writing here. Moreover, two classic pieces of African-American literature are explicated in this play: Gwendolyn Brooks' short poem "We Real Cool" and Richard Wright's 1939 novel Native Son. You don't have to know either to get what's going on, though I'd say it's well worth it to take some time with both if you aren't familiar. They are part of the canon of American literature we should all know.
Penumbra has joined with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to commission Morisseau to write for both companies. I'm glad they are investing in her. I'm especially curious about what original structures she may be able to devise to match the genius of her dialogue; this play contains some experiments in that direction. PIPELINE runs about 100 minutes without intermission and is on stage in Saint Paul through October 27.
Photo credit: Victor Paul Virtucio