Pipeline is haunted by the ghost of Gwendolyn Brook’s stark poem, “We Real Cool,” which succinctly and mercilessly traces the brief lifespan of young African-American pool players in 1960. As Nya (Karen Pittman), a fiercely disciplined, tightly wound teacher in a tough inner-city school tries to teach the poem to her class, she’s overcome by the voice and image of her own teenage son, Omari (Namir Smallwood), which keep interrupting her recitation.
The juxtaposition is striking but, sadly, not surprising. The title of this intense new play by playwright Dominique Morisseau (Skeleton Crew, Sunset Baby) refers to the metaphor that’s come to describe the trajectory of many minority students from school to prison, as zero-tolerance policies and the omnipresence of the juvenile criminal justice system (to say nothing of poor education) set kids up for incarceration as adults. The beleaguered Nya is doing her best to prevent that from happening to her son.
She teaches at a rough neighborhood school where the teachers don’t hope to do much more than keep order, perhaps to compensate for the fact that she’s sending her son to a more demanding private academy. There, however, Omari and his feisty girlfriend Jasmine (an entertaining Heather Velazquez) seem to be the token minorities, bound together more by their shared backgrounds than by their aspirations for the future. But Omari, struggling with the expectations of his mother, the insensitivities of his teachers, and the absence of the father, Xavier (Morocco Omari), whom his mother has divorced, has erupted in anger at one of the teachers at his school – and his mother is deathly afraid that this incident will mark the beginning of the end for him.
Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, this Lincoln Center production contrasts Nya’s anguish and Omari’s confusion and anger with a sharp and almost clinical documentary presentation of the settings they inhabit, with minimal but precise sets, abrasive lighting and video footage of a school that bears more than a passing resemblance to a prison. Stealthily flitting through these cold spaces are moments of warmth and light. Jasmine’s chatter is full of a brash self-assurance. She never loses sight of her own big picture in the tussles of the here and now, and you can imagine how that must strike a chord in Omari, whose own future feels so uncertain. And Nya’s colleagues, veteran teacher Laurie (Tasha Lawrence) and handsome security guard Dun (Jaime Lincoln Smith), offer her some real support and affection – and even, to a point, understanding – in the midst of their own travails. But these moments of respite are few and far between in what otherwise seems to be Nya’s own personal hell. And when it turns out that Omari’s outburst was caused by a teacher’s insistence that he explain the rage felt by the protagonist in Richard Wright’s Native Son, the irony is as bitter as it is inevitable.
It’s unfair to expect a play to solve issues as ingrained and complicated as those that Pipeline examines. But for all its passionate expression of Nya’s love and despair in the face of what seems increasingly certain doom, this drama feels ultimately unsatisfying in that its characters reach no real resolution or even new realization – and the cast’s strong performances only underline that fact. The closest is when Nya says that her son’s anger is “not his sin, it’s his inheritance.” But the very wording of that questionable epiphany is far from empowering, and it begs the question of Omari’s own father’s prosperity and apparent respectability – if there is a way out, what is it? And on the other hand, if all pipelines lead to the same place, what hope is there?