Karen Pittman is giving a sensational performance in the new play at Lincoln Center Theater, “Pipeline,” starring as a mother who fights tooth and nail to save her son from the “school-to-prison pipeline” that bedevils students of inner-city public high schools. Dominique Morisseau has written some quietly devastating social dramas (“Skeleton Crew”) on her way up, but now the playwright has definitely arrived with this emotionally harrowing, ethically ambiguous drama that raises barbed questions about class, race, parental duty, and the state of American education.
Credit Lileana Blain-Cruz, who recently directly “The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World” at the Signature Theater, for the excellent tech work, as well as for the terrific ensemble work of a small, tight company starring the underappreciated Pittman (“Disgraced”). The actress plays Nya, a dedicated African-American teacher at an overcrowded public school that looks totally menacing in the giant projections that Hannah Wasileski splashes across the cinderblock back wall of Matt Saunders’ barely-there set. As for the costumes, Montana Levi Blanco has found casual but elegant work outfits to flatter Pittman’s tall, lean frame, and make the point that teachers don’t dress to be dowdy.
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The congested, dangerous, mostly black high school where Nya teaches has its share of committed teachers like herself. Tasha Lawrence is painfully funny as Laurie, a seasoned veteran of the public school system. “I’m a white chick who has never had the luxury of winning over a class full of black and Latino kids,” she says. Having just returned to the classroom from a long absence for reconstructive face surgery (the family of a failing student cut her up), this tough cookie has no illusions about race relations in public schools. “This is war,” she says of the hostilities between white educators like herself and their black and brown students.
It’s a war that Nya is determined to keep her own teenaged son, Omari (Namir Smallwood, a find) from fighting on his own home turf. But Omari has carried his seething rage all the way upstate, to the expensive private academy where his protective mother enrolled him. A sensitive kid, he’s picked up the unacknowledged but ingrained racism of his privileged environment — and now he’s in danger of being expelled for hitting a teacher.
Omari tries to explain to his girlfriend Jasmine (Heather Velazquez, a jolt of pure energy) why he’s so edgy and tense. “Truth is, I got too many worries,” he tells her. “You feel me?” But she’s so keen, this little bombshell, that she gets right to the heart of the issue. “You sayin’ I’m addin’ to your stress level?” she demands. “I’m sayin’ I got stresses,” Omari snaps back. “Real ones. And hidin’ out in your dorm ain’t doin’ nothin’ but prolonging the inevitable.” The kicker to this fantastic exchange of idiomatic teen talk comes from Jasmine. “Maybe you your own stress problem,” she smartly throws at Omari, “and I ain’t got nothin’ to do with it.”
It’s no wonder that Morisseau is a co-producer on Showtime’s bleak comedy series “Shameless.” She respects the raw power of the emotionally loaded street language that she puts into the mouths of young people like Omari and Jasmine.
Although Nya teaches English, not Drama, some of her desperate pleas to Omari feel self-consciously literary. But for the most part, Nya loves the language of poetry and is determined to unlock its beauty and pain to her students. It was Morisseau’s brilliant idea to have Nya teach Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool: The Pool Players Seven at the Golden Shovel,” a poem so powerful it shocks the class into paying attention.
In a less excoriating tone, the play also picks at the painful scab of social class. There’s a sense of insecurity about Nya, who lives with the constant threat that a poorly paid teacher, a divorcee, and the single mother of a kid with big problems could lose her own middle-class professional status. She visibly shrinks when her ex-husband, Xavier, makes an entrance in the formidable person of Morocco Omari. The classy suit helps, but his deep voice and overpowering stature clearly announce that his job is to make money. Nya needs some of that money, which makes her financially dependent on her ex-husband and emotionally in thrall to her son. No wonder she has a panic attack.