BWW Review: PIPELINE at STUDIO THEATRE
Playwright and educator Dominique Morisseau's refuses to relegate the Black experience to the realm of impersonal statistics.
Directed by Awoye Timpo, PIPELINE traces the roots of Omari's (Justin Weaks) anger following his latest altercation with a tone-deaf English teacher at his private boarding school. Refusing to condone her son's use of violence, Nya (Andrea Harris Smith) fights to keep Omari from becoming a casualty of the school-to-prison "pipeline".
Nya and her fellow teacher Laurie (Pilar Witherspoon) face daily violence in the classrooms of their inner-city public school. Omari's anger and the anger of his peers in his mother's public school highlight the social and emotional vulnerability of young Black men.
As PIPELINE begins, powerful videos of Black teenagers fighting are projected against Set Designer Arnulfo Maldonado's clinically bare, white-tiled set. The set is evocative of the interior of every public school in any city anywhere. Unchanged from scene to scene, the set reflects Omari's awareness that at any moment he may be subjected to the unquestioning vilification of young Black men.
Nya's classroom analysis of "We Real Cool" by Gwendolyn Brooks sheds a light on the white perception and appropriation of Black culture. Studio Theatre projects two versions of "We Real Cool", one published by a white-owned press and one published by an independent Black press. By addressing the audience as her students, Nya and Morisseau craft a powerful teaching moment for PIPELINE's audience.
Weaks does a stellar job accessing Omari's anger and fragility, and Harris Smith's portrayal of Nya is poignant. PIPELINE is emotionally engaging, but the unchanging set creates a confusing lack of context in certain scenes, and the high number of confrontations onstage served to lesson their emotional impact over time.
By design, PIPELINE is not set in any specific city. Yet despite Artistic Director David Muse's assertion to the contrary, I question whether Studio's largely white and largely older audience sees the DC they know reflected onstage.
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission.
Warning: Strobe lights.