BWW Review: The Tampa Bay Area Premiere of Dominique Morisseau's PIPELINE at American Stage - As Powerful as Theatre Gets
"[We are] committed to challenging the 'school-to-prison pipeline,' a disturbing national trend wherein children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Many of these children have learning disabilities or histories of poverty, abuse, or neglect, and would benefit from additional educational and counseling services. Instead, they are isolated, punished, and pushed out." --from the ACLU website
"A teacher is supposed to engage you. Even when you don't feel like it. That's the teacher's job. I've told you that repeatedly...You're in SCHOOL. You're not in your personal space. You're in a collective space. A space to engage and be questioned and be stimulated and be provoked. That is education, Omari." --Nya, a teacher, to her son in PIPELINE
"Half these damn kids are suffering from mental illness. That's what the real problem is. A classroom can't fix that shit. And neither can Ritalin. But what do they know? Nothing, that's what. I know what these kids need, but who listens to me?" --Laurie, another teacher in PIPELINE
As a teacher of a Title 1 school with 90% of my students qualifying for free and reduced lunches, I witnessed and helped try to break up fights in our lunchroom the day before I experienced the Tampa Bay premiere of Dominique Morisseau's powerful PIPELINE at American Stage. This added to the experience because so many teachers have seen some of what was happening on the stage--teachers breaking up fights, questioning their own worth, worrying for their own family's survival while having to worry about everyone else's kid as well. Morisseau understands teachers, loves them--especially those in the inner city, brave souls who continue despite the odds, frightened but remaining strong in order to save those tough kids from becoming another statistic heading for the pipeline from school to prison.
Even without my teaching background, the play would resonate with me like few others. But as a teacher, I found it devastating. It's one of the most powerful shows I've ever experienced, and if you are a teacher and/or a parent, it will leave you battered, shattered, withered, at times elated and almost always looking at things in a new way. You will nod your head throughout it, seeing yourself up there and knowing that you are not alone in this world. It's a play that's not always easy, but is quite entertaining and insightful.
Nya is a black teacher in an inner-city public school. She's a strong woman and obviously a fine teacher, but life problems are getting the best of her when her teenage son, Omari, gets in trouble at the private school he's attending. Not only did Omari physically attack a teacher, but the incident has been captured on a student's cell phone and the video may soon go viral. Nya fears losing Omari, but she will do whatever it takes to save his life.
Gillian Glasco is transcendent as Nya. This is one of the most powerful performances I've ever seen at American Stage, up there with the likes of Rebecca Dines in Good People, L. Peter Callender in Between Riverside & Crazy, and Kim Sullivan in the August Wilson Century Cycle plays. It's almost like an exorcism of sorts, a cleansing of the soul, watching a person trying to keep her head together but ultimately falling apart. The actress lays it out on the stage where there is nothing left when she's done.
Glasco's Nya will do anything for her son. "I will take a bullet for you," she tells him. "I will suffocate the sun for you. I will steal the sky for you. I will blind Moses for you. I will strip the wind and the rain and the forests for you. Before I let you die or rot or lose your freedom, I will surrender my own." That speech is one of the most powerfully written and gorgeously delivered I have ever witnessed. It was a high point in a play with many high points.
Some people may think Glasco is over the top, but I found her very real under these circumstances, feverishly dealing with life or death issues. There is no such thing as "over the top" when a person is emotionally on fire and no one can douse the flames. It's uncomfortable to see at times, sure, but that's what provocative theatre should do. And Glasco plays it for all it's worth. I actually worried about the actress onstage sometimes; she's exhilarating to watch. I will never forget this performance.
As Nya's son, Omari, Andrew Montgomery Coleman is sensational. He's always in the moment, a volcano ready to explode, and one scene in particular with his father includes a monologue that is gut-wrenchingly real. Earlier, while his mother teaches Gwendolyn Brook's "We Real Cool," he keeps reciting the poem, dramatically, always ending before the horrifying last words: "We/die soon." Coleman's scene with the equally good and blistering Kiara Hines, as his girlfriend, Jasmine, crackles and sizzles. (I have taught many students who reminded me of Hines' character here, and her monologue near the end of the show is one for the ages.)
Cyntheia Beckert brings much-needed humor to the role of Laurie, Nya's white fellow teacher. Laurie has it rough; she was attacked by a student and had to have her face reconstructed. It's only weeks later, and she bravely returns, a scar still slicing across her face. (The scar on her cheek reminded me of a G.I. Joe action figure, who also had a scar on his cheek; this comparison makes sense since Laurie's classroom is almost like a combat zone.)
There is a moment that especially rang true, when Laurie pauses for a moment before she goes back to the classroom. It's that instant of fear, of going back to war, and it's probably too soon for her return. While Nya is obviously still a great teacher, you feel that Laurie has past her prime, or has just grown too cynical. And her inability to cope with this particular inner-city student population will have dire effects.
Cranstan Cumberbatch is a stalwart and sturdy as the security guard, Dun. Dun is friendly with the school staff, sometimes too friendly, but he's a good man in a tough job. "I'm the last of the good guys wearing a uniform and greeting kids with a smile when they enter the building," he tells Laurie at one point. "I try to make a sunny day out of shit. And I answer every call I get at the security desk. I do my job, damnit...But don't go taking me down with you. You get in trouble, you get early retirement. You wanna know what I'd get????...I do my damn job."
Aaron Morton has the thankless role of Xavier, Nya's ex-husband who's not around for their son. He pays his child support and for his son to go to a private school, but he can't connect with his child, or with the world. He touches his wife's desk for a second and then immediately runs for the hand sanitizer. Morton's acting style is different than the rest of the cast, more stilted and methodical; this difference works here, because Xavier, who has a good job and presents himself well to the world, is an outsider to his family. He can't connect with anyone, and the audience can't connect with him, which is certainly on purpose. And Morton hits new heights in being unlikable.
The tech work is equal to the brilliance of the performances in PIPELINE. Jaye A. Sheldon's costumes certainly work for each character, and Chris Baldwin's lighting design is fantastic and award-worthy. Jerid Fox's set is one of his best, on par with his glorious work on Tartuffe. Set pieces zoom onstage from open walls as the overhead fluorescent lights flicker on and off. The back concrete walls suit the school setting, but more importantly give us an idea of the prison that is in the future of so many of these students. Fox's projection design, used throughout the show, is also inspired, though I felt that the closing credits featuring the actors' names seemed unnecessary.
Director L. Peter Callender, who directed the last of the August Wilson plays at American Stage as well as last year's A Raisin in the Sun, has outdone himself here. This is one terrifically mounted production. Acting and tech mesh perfectly, with spot-on pacing, and I can't imagine a better production of Morisseau's masterpiece.
In a very good year of local theatre so far, with every theatre company playing their A-game, this is the finest, most powerful show I've seen this year and maybe since The Royale at American Stage two years ago.
It's now Sunday morning as I write this, and tomorrow is another day of school, another day to positively impact the young, to try to save lives. What lessons have I learned from PIPELINE? What lessons has the world learned, knowing this pipeline actually exists and no one outside of the classroom seems to do anything about it? That's the genius of Morisseau's work: It asks all the right questions and leaves us, those of us lucky enough to have experienced this fine show, to try to answer them.
PIPELINE at American Stage runs through February 24th.