Playwright Morisseau Revisits Rage in Racist America

Karen Pittman, Namir Smallwood in Pipeline. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.

Reminders that America is a racist society pop up so regularly it’s heartbreaking. For a prominent current example, look no further than Mitch McConnell’s healthcare bill, hammered out by 13 white Republican men behind closed doors and against just about everything but giving tax breaks to the rich.

One increasingly prominent playwright who can’t stay away from the topic of racism is Dominique Morisseau. Among her plays, perhaps the most pertinent has been Blood at the Root, in which Black students charged with a school fight are harassed by images of lynching. (Morisseau’s took her title from Lewis Allen’s song “Strange Fruit,” being sung now in London where Audra McDonald is again in Lady Day at the Emerson Bar and Grill, playing Billie Holiday, who encountered racism throughout her career.)

Driven to press her urgent point, Morisseau now imagines another student under school investigation for a fight — this time with a teacher, whom he attacked, in a videoed confrontation set to go viral and lead to his expulsion. This play is the heavy-duty Pipeline, running Off-Broadway at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater in a no-holds-barred production staged by Lileana Blain-Cruz, and with projections by Hannah Wasileski regularly presenting volatile school-corridor footage. The title refers to the “school-to-prison” pipeline all-too-often befalling young men of color.

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Omari Joseph (Namir Smallwood, properly confused) is the boy. He was enrolled at the tony Fernbrook Academy by divorced parents Nya (forthright, febrile Karen Pittman), an inner-city public school teacher, and Xavier (stern Morocco Omari), a successful businessman. (The Detroit-born playwright likely based Fernbrook on the prestigious Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield, MI.)

Morisseau focuses most of her attention on Nya and her attempts to understand why Omari — for whom this is the third such incident — is so intractable. Nya becomes even more anxious when, arriving at Fernbrook, she discovers that Omari has run away. About where he’s gone, she’s must grill his long-time girlfriend Jasmine (Heather Velasquez, full of teenage vigor), for whom she has little regard.

After forcing Jasmine to tell what she knows, Nya need not follow the leads for long: Omari returns and reluctantly reports the exchange that prompted him to slam his teacher against a wall. Seems he became uncontrollably angry when the teacher — not identified as white but almost surely was — prodded Omari with questions on Richard Wright’s Native Son, which he was reading for class. While Omari doesn’t specify right away that the questions relate to the vicious acts of Wright’s protagonist, Bigger Thomas, it doesn’t long to realize that Morisseau, in fact, is writing her spin on the 1940 novel — of which, James Baldwin said:

No American Negro exists who does not have his private Bigger Thomas living in the skull.

Omari felt singled out by the teacher’s persistence, and maintains that what transpired wasn’t a simple teacher-student exchange but a political attack. Nya doesn’t buy it, but her conflict is compounded by Omari’s relationship, and her own, with Xavier. In their past, we learn, there was a brief extra-marital affair with Dun (Jaime Lincoln Smith in a solid turn), a school security guard. Now, at least as Omari sees it, Xavier’s fatherly duties are covered by, and limited to, the writing of a monthly check.

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Before anything in Pipeline is resolved — not that everything is — Omari and Xavier have their own verbal, momentarily physical battle. The truths of their mutual dislike surface painfully.

Alhough the triangular domestic configuration is Morisseau’s primary concern, she’s also fixated on public school dynamics. She gets to this several times when depicting fiery discussions between and among Nya, Dun and the especially vocal Laurie (the hilariously tense Tasha Lawrence). In an early scene, Nya is in the classroom analyzing Gwendolyn Brooks’s tough poem “We Real Cool.” During part of her lecture, she pointedly criticizes the initial HarperCollins publishing house printing where African-American intonations were tidied up.

As Nya wrestles over how to deal with Omari, the poem, with its dire concluding line (“Die soon”), haunts her. She repeatedly hears Omari reciting it and, in a frightening development, gives in to “panic disorder” — like a nervous breakdown. Nor is it the only severe sequence stunningly played by a cast worked up to a fierce froth. When Nya badgers Jasmine, the tone is hard-edged. An early Omari-Jasmine tete-a-tete — where she challenges him on the nature of their love — is as pungent as it is funny. Perhaps the most unforgettable segment is that Omari-Xavier give-and-take as they wait for news of Nya’s condition in a hospital waiting area — how they tear into each other; how Omari’s explanation for his hatred of his father renders both characters speechless.

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Plays need not be perfect to be important: Morisseau’s play is excessively talky. Omari and Jasmine are intelligent, if troubled, adolescents, but are they this convincingly astute? Are there more outpourings than work dramatically? If Morisseau’s conclusion is rightly unresolved, it also feels slightly hurried.

Matt Saunders has designed a functional, institutional surround onto which actors and stagehands push furniture and props to indicate scenes. Montana Levi Blanco, the costumer, does his most perceptive work in the shoes he provides for Omari and Jasmine, revealing everything about the money behind two privileged, yet irrevocably deprived, kids.