In PIPELINE, playwright Dominique Morisseau reflects on the cracks in the inner-city public-school system, and the ways in which it often functions as a school to prison pipeline for young black men, without vilifying the system’s participants. It’s a skillfully crafted balance that demonstrates how the brokenness of the system is disheartening for teachers and students alike. And under the direction of Cheryl Lynn Bruce, Victory Gardens Theater’s ensemble makes this a very human struggle.
At its center, PIPELINE introduces audiences to Nya (Tyla Abercrumbie), a public school teacher struggling to protect her high school aged son Omari (Matthew Elam) from meeting this fate, while also contending with a thorny relationship with her ex-husband Xavier (Mark Spates Smith). While the couple have made the decision to send Omari to a private school in the hopes of giving him as many opportunities as he possibly can, that still has not shielded him from the inherent biases that also come with a privileged school environment. In response to being provoked by a teacher during a class discussion of Richard Wright’s NATIVE SON, Omari became violent and now faces potential expulsion and criminal charges. He seems to find some respite in his relationship with girlfriend Jasmine (a lovely Aurora Real de Asua), but that’s not enough to rectify the issue at hand.
Life isn’t easy for Nya at work, either, as she must deal with the challenges of the resource-strapped public school system. In a few scenes, we see her taking her lunch break with seasoned teacher Laurie (a fiery Janet Ulrich Brooks) and the overextended security guard Dun (Ronald L. Conner). Laurie has recently returned to work after having reconstructive surgery following an attack by a failing student’s parents, and it’s clear that Dun does not have enough resources to stop the students at the school from also becoming violent with each other.
Through the specific and personal circumstances of these characters, Morisseau reflects on the larger societal issues at hand. She also makes clear that while Omari’s situation has its own specific narrative, the challenges he faces are not his alone. Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem “We Real Cool” becomes a kind of chorus, woven throughout the piece in Josh Schmidt’s sound design and also spoken aloud. Andrew Boyce’s open-concept set design also reflects the broken-down nature of the public school in which Nya works.
PIPELINE is ultimately a portrait of one woman’s struggle to do what’s best for her son, while also coming to realize that may be impossible. Abercrumbie’s portrayal of Nya makes this all the more powerful. She gives a rich and layered performance that builds to a heartbreaking emotional intensity when we see just how much all of this weighs down on Nya. Abercrumbie seems born to play the role; she leans into it so fiercely and intensely. She succeeds in driving home the fact that Morisseau’s play can be both deeply personal and also deeply contemplative of a dysfunctional societal system at the same time.
PIPELINE plays through March 3 at Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 North Lincoln Avenue. Tickets are $27-$60. Visit VictoryGardens.org.
Photo Credit: Liz Lauren
Originally published on BroadwayWorld.com