Pipeline: Seeing the Whole in ‘We’

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Karen Pittman (foreground), Namir Smallwood (background).Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Pipeline: Seeing the Whole in ‘We’.

By Ross
Like Oslo one flight above, the black and white video images projected onto the large bare wall resonate with a power that seeps onto the stage and surrounds the actors of Pipeline, the latest play by Dominique Morisseau (ATC’s Skeleton Crew) at the Lincoln Center Theater. They tell an unsettling story all on their own, one that builds and defines itself throughout this heart wrenching story. The images (projections by Hanna Wasileski) and this play, directed with a strong guiding hand by Lileana Blain-Cruz (LCT’s War) and simple and a perfectly essential design (sets: Matt Saunders; costumes: Montana Levi Blanco; lighting: Yi Zhao; sound: Justin Ellington) searches for meaning in rage. Not necessarily his rage, but ‘the’ rage; the rage of the black American. And the fight to be seen, maybe as something other than that rage. To be seen as a whole person, outside of societal conventions. To be seen as human and real.
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Karen Pittman (Broadway’s spectacular Disgraced) as the mother and teacher, Nya, begins with a strong heartfelt plea to the father of her child, Xavier (Morocco Omari). The words instantly connects us to her frustration and her pain. Fear and confusion dribbles out as she attempts engagement with her ex-husband regarding their child. She’s frightened by what has happened. Scared of its meaning and its impact, and her conflicted emotional connection to her past marriage. But then she rethinks, and adjusts herself, trying with some difficulty to return to the powerful teacher and mother she wants to see herself as. It’s a compelling few minutes, in an equally compelling play, one that borders on the cliche but doesn’t fall victim to that trap. The cast won’t let it fall, and holds us solidly in its stare, refusing to look away first.
A poem of such power is recited, and explored by teacher, Nya.  The scene is ‘god-damned amazing’ in its deconstruction and explanation.  ‘We’
and all its meaning cannot be denied. ‘We’
has so much meaning when taught with such insight.  ‘We’
is emblazoned and therefore we cannot take our eyes of her.
This playwright dares to ask where the seed of anger and spark of uncontrollable violence is sowed in the soul of a Black American man. The piece of literature that plays a central role in this engaging drama is one by Black-American author, Richard Wright titled Native Son. It tells the story of a young Black man living in Chicago’s poverty stricken South Side in the 1930’s. The novel suggests there is no escape from the constant state of terror, mainly due to social conditioning, social injustice, and inevitability of the disenfranchised towards self-destruction. Nya’s son, Omari, intensely and passionately played by Namir Smallwood (Guthrie Theatre’s Buzzer), feels badgered and singled out by his teacher because of this story. To him, it feels like the teacher within the well appointed private school he is sent only sees him as one thing, not as a whole human. Is the  displacement of this young man the same social set-up for the inevitable, as would have been the case if he had stayed in his neighborhood, surrounded by like minded men, and attended the same public school that Nya struggles to teach within?
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Karen Pittman (foreground), Namir Smallwood (background). Photo by Jeremy Daniel.
It’s a compelling idea, that is most forcibly stated by his girlfriend, Jasmine, a strong but slightly stereotypically ghettoized portrayal by Heather Velazquez (Goodman Theatre’s Another Word for Beauty).  Her interactions with both him and later on with Nya are some of the most pointed observances in the play. She sees something that maybe the others are missing, as she is that Latina teenage girl, sent from her own struggling neighborhood and familial surrounding to attend a well-heeled private school. She sees the way the others see her and her boyfriend, and she has no problem vocalizing her discontent. Maybe that will be thing that saves her.
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Heather Velazquez, Namir Smallwood. Photo by Jeremy Daniel
Beyond the stellar work of the main opponents in this engagement, one of the best and funniest creations, even when it is coated in rage and frustration, is the work of Tasha Lawrence (MTC’s Good People) as the other teacher, Laurie, at the public school where Nya works. Lawrence shakes the bones of that school staff room with her defiant rage and undying devotion to the task set before her, to try to teach these kids, against all odds, something of relevance and use. She is a firecracker, and she ‘fuckin’ knows it.  So does Dun (Jaime Lincoln Smith) the school’s security guard, who is no match for her fire and her fight.  I only wish Smith’s character was given a bit more to do, as it seems there is a lot more beneath his smile and stance.
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Morocco Omari, Namir Smallwood.Photo by Jeremy Daniel.
The two charactered scenes are what makes this piece tick with such wild lyrical poetry and abandonment. They are the dynamics that mostly populate this dissertation on race, rage, and the Black Americans existence and tend to be the most powerful. The mother/girlfriend standoff and the father/son battle are layered deep with frustration, desperation, and anger. The mother and son confrontation though is rough and powerful in a different hue, drenched in fear and confusion, but with a power of desperate need. Tears may come when Nya asks for help, and they may come again when Omari gives her the help she requested. On one level it feels a tad over the top and cynically typical, but Pittman delivers it with such a painful ache that all assumptions are swept aside. Her energy and her embattled love is inspiring. Much like Laurie’s. And much like this play.
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