Pipeline is one of those thrilling intimate dramas that pulls you into its core with genuine emotion and basic human truths. Written by Dominique Morisseau and presented at Lincoln Center Theater one year after the completion of her famed trilogy, The Detroit Project, it won the Edgerton Foundation New Play Award. Every one of the well-drawn characters has an arguable viewpoint, proving that the most provocative and intelligent questions rarely have straight answers.
The entire cast of six is perfectly calibrated to provide an affecting high-energy 90 minute ride. Each character is under pressure, but despite their shared sense of oppression they simply can’t manage to give each other a break. The story opens on an earnest Karen Pittman as Nya, a teacher in a typically underfunded public school. Although she is fiercely dedicated to creating relatable materials for her inner-city students, she has agreed to send her only child Omari — an appropriately grave Namir Smallwood — to a private boarding school. He is clearly bright enough to compete academically, but privilege isn’t contagious and Omari has been undone by the environment. His long-brewing rage has boiled over during a lesson on Richard Wright’s Native Son, a controversial book often criticized for bolstering a destructive stereotype of young black men.
As mother and son work along their distinct paths in search of conflict resolution, we also meet two of Nya’s co-workers: Tasha Lawrence as a frustrated and mouthy white fellow teacher, Laurie, and Jaime Lincoln Smith’s Dun, a caring security guard who has history with Nya. Providing some lightness to the mood is a delightfully sincere Heather Velazquez as Omari’s girlfriend, Jasmine. Perhaps most critical to setting all the events in motion is Morocco Omari’s Xavier, Nya’s ex-husband who is out of step with both her and their son.
Thanks to a partnership between LCT and BroadwayHD, the work is currently available to viewers nationwide with rewarding results. Blending recordings from August 22 and 24 of 2017, Habib Azar’s direction for the screen(from stage direction by Lileana Blain-Cruz) draws the audience even deeper into the profound rage and passing joys of the characters. Significant details from a bandaid to a tremor are more visible in closeup. The short scenes are keep flowing by using film clips as bridges. Presented in three-quarter round with the audience as a classroom, this production also serves as an introduction to the jewel box of a house that is the Mitzie Newhouse.
The creative team has supported the required fast pace. Scenic designer Matt Saunders defines the space with a wall of white washed concrete masonry and simple set pieces. Location is further established using projections by Hannah Wasileski. Yi Zhao’s variations of light and shadow along with Justin Ellington’s sound work together to increase emphasis of key moments.
At a time when public schools are increasingly lacking in financial and community support, Pipeline draws sharp lines from a personal story to the bigger picture. The questions it raises are sure to linger in your heart and mind long after the last curtain call. In honor of Black History Month, Pipeline is featured with a stellar line-up that also includes 2010 Tony Award-winner for Best Musical, Memphis; American masterpiece, Porgy and Bess recorded in San Francisco’s splendid War Memorial Opera House; and the incomparable Audra McDonald in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. Learn more by visiting https://www.broadwayhd.com/categories/celebrating-black-artists.