Gwendolyn Brooks’ 1959 poem “We Real Cool” echoes through Dominique Morisseau’s play Pipeline like a tornado siren, an ominous warning of the perils of being a Black man in America. We Strike. Strike. Strike straight. We Die. Die. Die soon. Violence begets violence as the sins of the father become the rage of the son.
If American drama is important to you, the Johnson Theatre at TPAC needs to be on your destination list before the run of Dominique Morisseau’s Pipeline ends on November 3rd. The second show of Nashville Repertory Theatre’s 35th Anniversary season, Pipeline is among the most important new works to come into my life in recent years. In fact, the impact it had is such that my usual routine of writing the review when I get home and polishing it the next morning just couldn’t happen. This is a play that necessitates taking time to ruminate upon and allowing the full impact to hit you as the story puts down roots into your soul.
Ms. Morisseau’s work focuses on the age-old question of nature versus nurture. To be more specific, Pipeline revolves around Nya, a teacher in a struggling urban public school, joining with her ex-husband in sending their son, Omari, to an expensive prep school in an attempt at giving him a shot at a better future. Or is it to give him a shot at not getting shot? Is it both? The cruel reality of being young, gifted, and black (with appropriate debt to Nina Simone) is that Omari is a target.
As Nya, Alicia Haymer stalks a depressing cage as mother and teacher. She knows that the school where she teaches isn’t good enough. It’s getting better, but the reality is that she can only do so much in the face of violence, apathy, and a million other limitations. But her fears are compounded by the reality facing her son at his very white prep school. Haymer tugs at and adjusts her clothing in a manner that palpably displays her discomfort in the world spinning out of control around her. It’s like her skin runs with electricity and the barely suppressed need to do more, to be what her son needs, and to save who she can. Nya is on the edge.
When an altercation at his school threatens to derail Omari’s education, Haymer’s desperation is amped up even further, searching for answers as a prophet would, lost and forsaken in the Biblical wilderness. But in this harsh world of no clear answers, it is her guilt that drives and fuels her existence.
As Omari, Gerold Oliver perfectly fills in his character’s abundant intelligence and adolescent energy. But unsure, youthful impetuousness is propelling Omari towards a wall at a hundred miles an hour. His destruction seems inevitable, whether by his own choices or the forces of the world he’s been born into. Omari knows that he doesn’t belong at this school. His skin color alone would be enough to separate him, but the gulf between have and have-not cannot be denied and is exacerbated by his equally wise (and also African-American) girlfriend, Jasmine. Candace-Omnira’s portrayal of this world-wise young woman is part Lady Macbeth and part mythological Siren. She is perhaps most acutely aware of why and how neither of them fit into this idyll of White WASP culture.
The separate spheres of the public and private schools are starkly and beautifully created by scenic artist Omari Booker’s paintings, which have been rendered into vivid, massive projections against set designer Gary C. Hoff’s public school of tiled walls, lockers, and chalkboard. These paintings, on display in the lobby of the Johnson Theatre, depict heavy, impressionist brush strokes of color, and suggest an interior world of turbulence and a lack of security. When these images are thrown against the school wall between scenes, the worlds within Pipeline are made all the more vivid and starkly separate.
The contrast is also powerfully embodied by Mary Tanner as Laurie, one of Nya’s fellow teachers. It’s Laurie, who if we’re going to make mythological comparisons, is the play’s Cassandra, speaking truth and being ignored as violence sweeps around her character. She is both hilarious in her brutal honesty and rendered tragically pathetic when her classroom devolves into chaos. Laurie is a veteran of many everyday wars with scars – both physical and spiritual – to show that her profession is caught in the middle of social, personal, and professional vendettas, something any teacher can attest to.
When the one-act play reached its end, I was left with an angry, racing heart. As a former university lecturer and the son of a junior high school teacher, I know these hurts, these accusations, and the reality of an educational system underprepared, underfunded, and yet trying so hard to make young men and women into functioning, educated adults. Pipeline is a play that works on you far after the final bows. And once it’s in your psyche, that’s when you’re forced to analyze yourself and how you see black and white and good and bad in this world.
Jon Royal’s smart, propulsive direction keeps Pipeline a lean, scary ride through a world that all too often mirrors – in minute detail – the terrifying times in which we live. This is a world not too far from the one in which Trayvon Martin is gunned down in cold blood, that sees Eric Garner strangled to death by a police officer in broad daylight, where Botham Jean is murdered in his own home by an officer who enters an apartment not her own, and that tells the heartbreaking story of Atatiana Jefferson, whose life is ended by police for the simple “crime” of having the doors of her home open in the Fort Worth night.
Just as Gwendolyn Brooks is woven through Pipeline, the voice that continued to echo through my head as I wrote this review is Childish Gambino and his “This is America” (Warning: Video includes graphic depictions of violence.) After all, this world that will kill you if you’re caught slipping. Or just kill you because you’re black. Or for any of a hundred thousand other reasons.
You just a black man in this world
You just a barcode, ayy
You just a black man in this world
Drivin’ expensive foreigns, ayy
You just a big dawg, yeah
I kenneled him in the backyard
No proper life to a dog
For a big dog.
The Nashville Repertory Theatre production of Pipeline, a play by Dominque Morisseau, runs through November 3rd at TPAC’s Andrew Johnson Theatre. Tickets and details are available at TPAC.org.