Review: “Pipeline”

Tyler Abercrumbie and Matthew Elam, (Photo by Liz Lauren)

RECOMMENDED

Where: Victory Gardens
Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.
When: through March 3
Tickets: $27-$60
Phone: 773-871-3000

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

There’s a moment in Dominique Morisseau’s “Pipeline” that, perhaps unintentionally, epitomizes how parents fail to connect with their teenage children.

Nya, a dedicated inner-city high school teacher who, with her ex-husband, has sent their only son Omari to an upstate school in the hopes that he’ll avoid the “pipeline” to prison that traps so many underprivileged adolescents, has learned that the boy has been suspended for attacking a teacher, an incident that was captured on cell phones and has gone viral.

This is his “third strike,” so he faces potential expulsion and prosecution, and he has also apparently disappeared. When he returns home, the distraught Nya has been smoking and drinking, and they get into a big argument, though they obviously love each other.

Then, at one point, the tired and upset Omari says that he’s starving and offers to make them some pasta. Nya refuses with a curt remark about how she’ll wait for him to tell her what to do about the situation. He offers again, and she refuses again.

The little voice in my head said she should have accepted because, as everyone knows, one of the best ways for two people to bond or reach an understanding is over a meal.

This lack of communication is just part of the issue in the 90-minute play, which is having its Chicago premiere directed by Cheryl Lynn Bruce at Victory Gardens Theater. As with her other works, Morisseau (“Skeleton Crew,” “Paradise Blue,” “Sunset Baby,” etc) crafts compelling characters and situations, but here the plot is formulaic, confused, and at times confusing. Information, for example the details of Omari’s transgression and the reason for it, is revealed gradually in a contrived way that’s designed to create suspense but doesn’t really.

The action for the most part alternates between Nya’s (the superb Tyla Abercrumbie) school and Omari’s (Matthew Elam), with the actors moving the couch, chair, and desk of Andrew Boyce’s minimalist scenic design around in front of an institutional-looking wall. There are two literary interludes. In one, Nya addresses us, as if we’re her class, on the subject of Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool,” a poem that ends “We die soon,” as projections (by Liviu Pasare) of the words and letters dance on the back wall, and a vision of an angry Omari dances in her mind (though it’s not clear that this is what’s happening).

In the other, we learn that what set Omari off was a discussion of Richard Wright’s Native Son” during which the teacher singled him out for questions about the causes of the protagonist’s homicidal rage. “Racism” isn’t explicitly mentioned, but he felt it, though we later learn that he blamed his absent father, Xavier (Mark Spates Smith), a rather pat explanation. A successful businessman, Xavier arrives and suggests solving the problem by taking Omari out of school and sending the boy to live with him and his new wife.

In the most persuasive presentation of Morisseau’s theme, the atmosphere at Nya’s inner-city school is grim, and the staff is just trying to make it from one day to the next. Fellow teacher, Laurie (Janet Ulrich Brooks in another spot-on performance), a self-described middle-aged “white chick,” has recently returned from reconstructive facial surgery after having been slashed by one of her students. Later, she’ll face disciplinary action for using a pole to break up a fight between two students when the security officer she called, Dun (Ronald L Conner), didn’t arrive quickly enough due to lack of sufficient staffing. There’s also a tense encounter between Dun and Xavier related to the breakup of Nya’s marriage.

At Omari’s school, the city kids’ sense of being out of place is best expressed by Jasmine (the marvelous Aurora Real de Asua), his motor-mouthed Latina girlfriend whose very entertaining long speeches—including one to Nya—sometimes betray a street-wise wisdom beyond her years. She’s arguably the evening’s most interesting character.

While Abercrumbie’s Nya shows us all the anguish of a mother driven to a panic attack by intense efforts at self-control, Elam’s Omari isn’t very convincing as a rage-filled teenager on this “third strike.” He’s too intelligent and sensitive, and though he initially tries to run away from the repercussions of what he’s done, he can’t go through with it. This is the result of the way he’s written and directed as much as anything else, but it does muddy the point I think Morisseau is trying to make.

Or, maybe it doesn’t. Perhaps Omari’s behavior is meant to be a ray of hope, if only he were better understood. After all, he is the one who reaches out to his mother with that offer of pasta.