The hopes and fears of parents multiply exponentially when your child is a young black man. Likewise statistics shared in City Theatre’s program support that black students (male and female) are more likely to be suspended from school at any age. Dominique Morisseau’s 2018 Obie-winning Pipeline at City tackles the challenges of black youth in varied educational settings.
Pipeline is a superbly crafted play. Place this award-winning playwright’s efficient knot of action, characterization and poetic language in the capable hands of City Theatre’s artistic team and audiences get 90 minutes of powerful theatre that is realistic and relevant. That not a moment is wasted in this Pittsburgh premiere underscores the urgency of the theme.
In Pipeline, Omari is the hope of his divorced parents who have gotten him a spot in a private school where he’s in the minority. He has a girlfriend but is carrying the effects of his parents’ break-up and perhaps their expectations for him.
Immediately the intimate three-quarter thrust set says the audience will be close to the characters. The projected effects by Adam J. Thompson from floor to back wall to ceiling are vivid and reinforce both the personal journeys of the people we meet and where they live and work. Moreover, we even see the faces of other young black men lost to gunshots–including Antwon Rose and Trayvon Martin–referencing every parent’s worst nightmare and our recent history. And lighting by Andrew David Ostrowski works with the set and projections brilliantly as it illuminates but doesn’t announce itself.
Technically, Pipeline sings in harmony. Tony Ferrieri’s compact set works wonders with its turntable supporting scene changes we don’t have to see as a teachers lounge disappears and we are in a dorm room, as a living room moves and we can travel to a hospital.
The effects work with the action and the spot on music composed by 1Hood Media. This collective of young artists and activists invited to compose new music that is an ideal soundtrack throughout.
Writing, acting, and production design are all top notch in support of a powerful ensemble. Reginald L. Douglas moves his cast of six deftly, taking advantage of both the intimacy and the aisles. The actors are dressed like people we know by costume designer Dominique Fawn Hill. As we get to know the characters we long to spend more time, even as they disappear when the turntable moves and as the play ends.
In an amazing scene, Omari explains what was going on in his mind when his teacher urged him to share what was happening to the character of Bigger Thomas in Richard Wright’s Native Son. Bigger is likewise an African-American youth who is given a chance to reach for a brighter future. When Omari describes that the teacher pushed his buttons, his father punctuation the conversation with his own silence.
Carter Redwood’s Omari manages to appear casual about what’s happening. He even risks a dark joke with his mother. Redwood’s shines in his monologue about how he was feeling when he lashed out his teacher. Omari’s pain and confusion are raw as he sorts what happened and, more importantly, why.
His mother Nya is portrayed with heartbreaking passion by Nambi E. Kelly who explores Nya’s most private moments of angst and fear. Kelly captivates as she navigates her greatest fear–that her son’s dilemma might destroy his future.
Omari’s girlfriend Jasmine is drawn by Krystal Rivera, a Point Park senior making her City debut. Rivera’s performance is moving and resonant as a picture of a young woman dealing with the realities of education and the street today.
Two men in Nya’s life traverse her professional and personal sphere. Dun, played by Gabriel Lawrence, is a public school security guard where Nya and Laurie teach. Khalil Kain is Nya’s ex-husband Xavier, the successful professional who writes the checks for support and private school but isn’t around much. Lawrence’s silence is as powerful as his speaking in another strong performance here.
Shelia McKenna as Nya’s colleague Laurie captures the frustration and tenacity of teachers in the trenches. In days when both students and teachers are just a cell phone video away from suspension, Laurie has perhaps reached her own breaking point. McKenna draws Laurie as many teachers who may be familiar to many of us.
At City, the extension of Pipeline to reach more diverse audiences includes some twenty women leaders from the black community facilitating post-show conversations. This production aspires to instill both dialogue and action. That is indeed the power of theatre.
Pipeline delivers strong reminders that schools and teachers–whether public or private–present challenges for both students and those who teach. This is a play for our times, foreshadowing what can happen to any young person of color who shows up at the wrong place at the wrong time. The play could be grittier and more frightening, but this play about the people who affected by the systems they must navigate while they try to remain safe. Pipeline is relevant to any young person seeking to develop their talent and potential in spite of family, economic, or cultural obstacles.
Pipeline is on stage at City Theatre through Nov. 18, with performances Tuesdays through Sunday. Curtain times vary and a number of special talks and programs are also on the calendar online at CityTheatreCompany.org or call 412-431-2489. Tickets start at $29 with additional offers for those under age 30, patrons 62 years and older, and groups.
Yvonne Hudson, a Pittsburgh-based writer, publicist, actor, and singer, joined PITR as a writer and adviser in February 2016. She began performing and writing during high school in Indiana, PA. The Point Park journalism grad credits her Globe editor for first assigning her to review a play. Yvonne is grateful to Dr. Attilio Favorini for master’s studies at Pitt Theatre Arts, work at Three Rivers Shakespeare Festival, and believing in her Shakespearean journey. When not working with nonprofits, this lifelong chorister sings with Calvary UM Church’s annual Messiah choir. Having played Juliet’s Nurse for Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks, Yvonne is now seen in her solo shows, Mrs Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson: The Poet Lights the Lamp. Goals: See all of Shakespeare’s plays in production and memorize more Sonnets. Fave quotes: “Good deed in a naughty world,” “Attention must be paid,” and “A handbag?” Twitter @msshakespeare Facebook: PoetsCornerPittsburgh LinkedIn
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