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Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors


Namir Smallwood and Karen Pittman in Pipeline. Photographer: Jeremy Daniel

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors

With Karen Pittman's scorching portrayal of Nya Joseph, an exasperated single mother and dedicated inner city high school teacher, playwright Dominique Morisseau (Skeleton Crew) probes a social problem through a personal frame of reference. At Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theatre, Morisseau's eloquence and Lileana Blain-Cruz’s fine-tuned direction examines an all-too familiar headline of school violence.

Distressed by the hazards of the high school where she teaches English in over-crowded, under-funded conditions with violence as part of the curriculum, Nya is an overwrought chain smoker.  She has trouble concentrating in her class while she tries to expose the students to the eloquence of fine poetry.  Weaving through the background, is the theme of a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks, We Real Cool: The Pool Players Seven at the Golden Shovel, warning of the apocalypse facing so many young black men. As she reads the poem in class, the hidden voice of her teenage son, Omari intercepts with Brooks' "graffiti" lines.  Nya cannot help but feel Omari's presence, especially with the chilling last line, "We die soon."

Omari (Namir Smallwood) has reached adolescence with a trigger temper of rage and resentment that has been hard to shake off. Trying to save him from the “school-to-prison pipeline,” Nya and her former husband sent him to an expensive private school, hoping to steer him toward a successful future. Now, when he physically attacks a teacher during a heated discussion of Richard Wright's Native Son, Omari faces being expelled. His mother is struggling. Her stress and frustration is reaching critical mass and then a panic attack that eventually sends her to the hospital.

With an excellent mother/teacher depiction of Nya by Pittman (Disgraceful), dressed neat and hip in jeans and shirts by Montana Levi Blanco, the blue-chip supporting cast fits the bill.

Omari is an intelligent young man with a sense of decency that is in battle with his quick temper. Portrayed forcefully by Smallwood (obviously older than the character he portrays), Omari is aware of his background and where his roots lie. He has a girlfriend, Jasmine, a smart, fast-talking, no-nonsense Latina played by Heather Velazquez who shares the same problems and giving as good as she gets. ("You seeking to get socked in the eye. I don’t turn on and off like no stove.") The back-and-forth street language is straight off today's streets, distinct from the poetry of English class.

Xavier, Nya's ex-husband, played with an aura of arrogance by Morocco Omari, tries to connect with his son but his years of lack of communication and empathy has done its damage.

Excellent are Nya's co-workers at the school, including fellow teacher Laurie (Tasha Lawrence), a fireball who has battled with her students and has the scars to prove it. You don't mess with Laurie. “I’m a white chick who has never had the luxury of winning over a class full of black and Latino kids,” she says. Dun is a good-looking school security guard, played by Jaime Lincoln Smith who effectively balances charm and rage. Nya apparently had a brief fling with Dun that led to her divorce from her husband.

The set by Matt Saunders with Hannah Wasileski's projections looks like a generic inner city public school. Pipeline explores the wars waging in that school world. It astutely adds the emotional urgency of one teacher who also happens to be a single mother, but this play is about questions. We still have to supply the answers.

Lincoln Center - Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater
150 W. 65th St. NYC.
Preview: 15, 2017. Opening: July 10, 2017. Closing Aug. 27, 2017
Cast: Tasha Lawrence, Morocco Omari, Karen Pittman, Namir Smallwood, Jaime Lincoln Smith and Heather Velazquez
Running time: 85 minutes. No intermission.
Written: Dominique Morisseau
Director: Lileana Blain-Cruz

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors
July 2017

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