An African-American teacher at an inner city high school has sent her only son to a posh private academy to shield him from the harsh realities of their community. But it hasn’t worked; the son faces expulsion and possible criminal charges for assaulting a teacher. In an impassioned speech to the school board, in which she pleads for leniency for her son, the mother states, “the violence is not his sin, it’s his inheritance.”
That scene is at the crux of Dominique Morisseau’s “Pipeline,” currently being staged in an intense and impeccably cast production at Hoboken’s Mile Square Theatre. The 90-minute drama centers on the complicated relationship between school teacher Nya, her divorced husband Xavier and their troubled son Omari. But the unspoken issues of systemic racism, and the stereotypes and expectations that push so many young men of color into the “school-to-prison pipeline” stand at the play’s core, as stolid and unyielding as the institutional cinder block walls that comprise the production’s spare sets.
Malikha Mallette as Nya and Jarvis Tomdio as Omari offer riveting performances as the mother who struggles for answers and the son who is unable to explain the uncontrollable rage that swells up inside him. Morisseau’s script provides opportunities for both characters to explicate their torment, with language that seems painfully and recognizably real.
The supporting cast excels as well: Jessica Darrow nails the nuances of Omari’s Latinx girlfriend and the complexities of teenaged first love, while Annie McAdams all but steals the show as Laurie, a feisty veteran teacher who befriends Nya and finds herself in trouble for defying protocol by breaking up a fight between two students. Chadwick Antonio Rawlings as Dun, a sympathetic security guard, and Marcus Denard Johnson as Omari’s estranged father Xavier both deliver restrained, believable performances; they’re two more characters overwhelmed by circumstances and their own sincere if inadequate attempts to deal with an impossible situation.
Two classic works of black literature stand at the heart of “Pipeline”: The first is Richard Wright’s “Native Son,” which chronicles how poverty and racism triggered the inevitability of protagonist Bigger Thomas’ violent crime. The novel’s story repeats itself when a white teacher demands an insight into the character’s motivation from Omari, who feels he’s being singled out for his blackness, and reacts with violence. James Baldwin once wrote, “No American Negro exists who does not have his private Bigger Thomas living in his skull.” Morisseau brings that insight to life with her story.
Similarly, Gwendolyn Brooks’ 1963 poem “We So Cool,” about the wasted potential of black youth hanging out at a pool hall instead of attending school, becomes a metaphor for what Nya sees happening to her son. As Nya teaches the poem to her class, she’s driven to panic attacks by the prophecy of the poem’s last line: “We real cool. We Left school. We Lurk late. We Strike straight. We Sing sin. We Thin gin. We Jazz June. We Die soon.”
If there’s a downside to “Pipeline,” it lies in its refusal to connect the dots between its characters and the social issues at hand; too often, the audience has to infer meaning and social context from the action. If you’ve never read the social literature on how the treatment of inner-city students might determine their future — the “school-to-prison pipeline” — the meaning of the play’s title will elude you. Did Nya and Dun have an affair that broke up Nya’s marriage? The play offers hints, but no confirmation. And there’s an almost deus ex machina quality to the way a lost cell phone leads not only to Nya’s near mental breakdown, but also to Omari’s self-destructive act of violence, a “third strike” offense that dooms him to expulsion, if not jail.
Those are quibbles, not complaints, though. In every regard, Mile Square Theatre’s production of “Pipeline” (which debuted at Lincoln Center in 2017) impresses, from the stark lighting to the simple, sliding sets of gray cinder block panels. Kevin R. Free’s sly direction never shies from ramping up the intensity when called for, but also allows the story to breath with occasional and welcome bursts of humor.
“Pipeline” runs through Oct. 6 at Mile Square Theatre in Hoboken; visit milesquaretheatre.org.
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