IRT stirs the urban cauldron in production of Dominique Morisseau's 'Pipeline'

Nya expounds upon Gwendolyn Brooks' famous poem.
There's so much to unpack from the mega-bookbag of public education in large cities that it's little wonder that "Pipeline" strains under the burden.

Dominique Morisseau's one-act drama opened Friday night at Indiana Repertory Theatre. The style of the production is impressive,with projections to the rear and side of the stage giving the feel of turmoil and blurred personal identities in a big-city public high school. The sound design reflects the mass of signals we live among today — from the clicks of texting to class start and dismissal bells. It also represents emotional triggers for the main character, a hard-working teacher and single mom played to the hilt by Aimé Donna Kelly.

Nya is trying to save her son, Omari, from expulsion at a suburban private school, to which her ex-husband, Xavier, is paying tuition for him. The couple had one child before they split up, and for Nya, it's as if all her focus on being the best teacher she can be rests upon her investment in Omari. Successful executive Xavier's investment is rather more distant. When the crisis is at its most acute, they can barely come to terms with the best way to proceed.

"Pipeline" is thus essentially a family drama that uses its central crisis as a mirror in which the audience sees the conflicts between what the characters are accustomed to and what they aspire to. Specifically, it takes the deprivations and inadequacies of public education and the neighborhoods that feed it to force audiences to question if society is doing enough to keep one generation after another of African-Americans from sinking into further marginalization. The pipeline of the play's title is the school-to-prison channeling of legions of young black men. So the answer is: Of course

Laurie shares her frayed commitment with Dun and Nya.
Directed by Raelle Myrick-Hodges, the IRT production is fast-paced and exudes confidence about its central focus. Nothing about Friday's performance threatened to lessen the intensity or drift into side issues or ambiguity. Sometimes this laser-like beam of relevance made the central character hard to figure out: Nya seems simultaneously a master teacher and a woman about to shatter under stress. It was puzzling to see the granular detail with which she had her class respond to a Gwendolyn Brooks poem in an educational environment we are meant to see as dysfunctional. In other scenes, the characters of Dun, a security officer, and Laurie, a battle-scarred middle-aged colleague of Nya's, convey in no uncertain terms that the school is broken.

Nya's lecture on Brooks' "We Real Cool," an almost scholarly examination of how the poem looks different as printed by a major publisher and a street-level shoestring operation, is hard to accept in its context. The poem stands for the unconscious expression of truants in a pool hall about their wasted lives, and thus it resonates with the downward path the troubled Omari seems to be on. Omari's echoey recitation of the poem behind his mother at work was a fine surrealistic moment.

But I'd like to see Nya's other lesson plans. She must be a miracle worker in the classroom to lay this kind of exposition upon high-schoolers and have them respond raptly. The emphasis on "We Real Cool" brings up another problem with "Pipeline." Brooks has placed "we" at the end of each line, where it sticks out right after the rhyming word. The poem thus indicates a collective decline among young men, without adequate role models, succumbing to peer pressure. In contrast, Omari's
difficulties seem to have individual roots; that's what mainly confirms "Pipeline" as a family drama. What we are left to fill in is any evidence that his contemporaries, past or present, are dragging him down.

Of course, he's now in a private school among privileged kids. He's got a saucy girlfriend, Jasmine, who balances where she comes from with where she finds herself now. He's having a hard time doing that. What puts him on the brink of expulsion, and perhaps a criminal charge, is his assault upon a teacher who's questioning him too closely about Richard Wright's "Native Son" on a day when he's depressed and feels like a fish out of water. That scene is assembled through dialogue recalling the incident, which is not staged. What's presented to us is the aftermath of one of those last-straw events that many have gone through, though rarely in such a potentially game-changing way.

Omari, rescued at last, presents his list of needs.
Such matters are vividly presented, and Cole Taylor's Omari is nicely judged between teen confusion and rage. Renika Williams' Jasmine was his stubborn opposite, both jealous and protective. She is almost a match for Nya, who applies emotional thumbscrews forcefully in one of Kelly's most electrifying scenes. André Garner plays Xavier with an air of self-assurance, settled in his life path and showing firmness as negotiator with his ex-wife, but a man not prepared for Omari's sustained, accusatory rant, which was Taylor's peak moment Friday night. Constance Macy and Toussaint Jeanlouis fully projected characters of contrasting temperaments — his involved but laidback, hers weary but still combative — equally caught up in the high school's dysfunction.

"Pipeline" wrestles admirably with major social problems, exposing the barrenness of some of the "betterment" options offered to traditionally oppressed and neglected communities. It avoids being too abstract about them by focusing on a mother and her son, but some loose ends remain. The style, with its coruscating speeches and surrealistic presentation, works well, thanks to some well-coordinated design contributions by Junghyun Georgia Lee, Ari Fulton, Xavier Pierce, and Reuben Lucas.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]


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