BWW Review: Nashville Rep's PIPELINE Issues Powerfully Eloquent Challenge to Audiences
Jon Royal Directs Alicia Haymer, Gerold Oliver and More in Stunning Production
Dominique Morisseau's Pipeline, which continues Nashville Repertory Theatre's 35th season, is an emotionally driven work of contemporary eloquence and power, a play which audiences should experience in hopes of opening their eyes to the institutional prejudice and bias that exists in this country - whether we care to admit it or not. At least, that's the initial takeaway for theater-goers who are giving a cursory review of what they've just seen onstage at Tennessee Performing Arts Center's Andrew Johnson Theatre.
But should they choose to look more closely, consider more fully, the issues and themes covered by Morisseau in her exquisitely crafted drama, they will likely find more about the story with which to identify: Pipeline is a universal tale that resonates more deeply: the story of a mother's hopes and dreams that she has fostered for her son since the day he was born. It is that, perhaps, which might have the biggest impact on liberal-minded white audiences eager to pat themselves on the back for seeing Nashville Rep's "black play" of the 2019-20 season.
Directed by Jon Royal (who already in 2019 has directed Topdog/Underdog for Nashville Rep and Ghost for Nashville Children's Theatre - both of which cover similar ground in different ways), Pipeline focuses on Nya (played with palpable concern and an easy grace by Alicia Haymer), a hard-working and devoted teacher in a public high school - which might be in New York City, although its locale is never directly addressed - who longs to provide her beloved son, Omari (Gerold Oliver gives the best performance of his career to date), with more opportunities by enrolling him in a private school "upstate" where, we learn, he has become embroiled in an incident not entirely of his own making that may lead to his expulsion from the tony academy.
Omari's matriculation at a private academy is set in counterpoint against the school where Nya strives to give her students their own leg up in contemporary times, seeking to inspire them and to challenge them every day while navigating the vagaries of the sometimes violent surroundings. The school, Nya informs us, may have its problems, but there are also good things happening there, thanks to dedicated educators, administrators and support personnel focused on providing a good education no matter the circumstances.
Morisseau's evocatively written play isn't always easy to watch. Certainly, the performances of Royal's six-member ensemble are beautifully crafted and effectively performed and the director stages the play's action at a good pace that keeps his audience engaged. But those liberal-minded folks sitting out in the dark should be uncomfortable, watching from their seats of privilege as the realities of what life is like for most young black men are brought into sharper focus.
As Morisseau writes of the rage that must be suppressed by her characters in order to survive day-to-day, it's obvious that it will at some point boil over, leading to incidents like the one in Omari becomes involved that jeopardizes his future.
Morisseau's extraordinary way with modern language and contemporary events is somewhat revelatory, and she underscores the play's action by limning it with riches of her own literary heritage, incorporating themes from Richard Wright's 1940 novel - Native Son - and invoking images from Gwendolyn Brooks' 1959 poem "We Be Real" in order to give Omari's struggles more significant literary underpinnings. Morisseau uses these works by Wright and Brooks as literary signposts that punctuate the landscape along the way of Omari's journey, which is, in fact, the journey of all young black men in the 21st century dating back to 1619 when the first Africans were enslaved at Jamestown.
The title of Morisseau's play refers to the school-to-prison path, followed far too often by youngters from disadvantaged backgrounds in this country, thanks to the institutionalized prejudice they face every day of their lives. Although that isn't directly referred to in the script, its specter hangs over every word, every action, every moment found within its pages.
Appearing before a panel at the private school, asking them to not press charges against her son, Nya tells them that his transgression (he stands accused of attacking a teacher who pushed and prodded him to deliver testimony from his perspective on Bigger Thomas, the primary character in Wright's Native Son) is "not his sin; it's his inheritance." We are left not knowing what becomes of Omari, although we can probably guess - and the result is not pleasant, nor is it comfortable. But it shouldn't be. And that's why plays like Pipeline are so important during these tumultuous times in which we live.
Haymer's heartfelt performance provides much of the heart of the play, but it's her onstage chemistry with Oliver that reverberates throughout the 90-minute production and which ensures the play's impact is most deeply felt. Oliver, quite simply, has never been better and shows more promise than ever before for a future in theater that is his for the taking.
Joel Diggs is impressive as Xavier, Omari's father and Nya's ex-husband, whose absence from his son's life results in his ham-fisted reaction to the recent turn of events. Diggs' performance is somehow very dramatic yet understated in the very best possible sense. Mary Tanner, playing a hard-boiled but sympathetic teacher at Nya's school, represents those educators determined to make a difference in the lives of their students even as they must fight against the machine of modern-day education.
As hardworking (yet constrained by rules and regulations) school safety officer, Barry G. Kennedy Jr. delivers a multi-faceted performance, and Candace-Omnira is delightful in her perfectly modulated performance as Jasmine, Omari's girlfriend, managing to skirt the possibility of being something of a stereotype to instead create a genuinely authentic character.
Gary C. Hoff designs the perfect set for Pipeline, which is made even more visually compelling by the use of artwork by Omari Booker that ideally captures the intensity of the play and frames it artistically and creatively. Darren Levin's lighting design bathes the set in atmospheric shading and moments of real illumination, while Lori Gann-Smith's costumes clothe her actors with believable style.
Pipeline. By Dominique Morisseau. Directed by Jon Royal. Stage managed by Cecilia Lighthall. Presented by Nashville Repertory Theatre, at Andrew Johnson Theatre, Tennessee Performing Arts Center, Nashville. Through November 3. For details, go to www.nashvillerep.org or call (615) 782-4040. Running time: 90 minutes (with no intermission).