Morisseau’s ‘Pipeline’ at DPT explores the unfortunate fate of too many black men
DETROIT, Mich.–Here’s a trade secret: most writers hate coming up with titles for their work.
In some cases, however, the act of naming allows the author to posit an idea that might not otherwise be mentioned within the piece itself, thus pointing the audience in a thematic direction before the lights even go down.
Such is the case with Dominique Morisseau’s Pipeline, now being staged by Detroit Public Theatre. Though outwardly about a black student (Omari, played by Yakeem Tatum) at a mostly white private school who’s filmed pushing a teacher against a whiteboard – and the ensuing fallout conversations that occur between his public school teacher mother Nya (Lisa Strum) and his estranged, emotionally distant attorney father Xavier (Brian Marable) – the title clues us in to a bigger picture; one that looks beyond the scope of Morisseau’s narrative and hints at how a young man’s entire future could be shaped by his actions on a few of the hardest days of his adolescence.
Sounds heavy, I know. And the stakes of this potential “school-to-prison pipeline” scenario are high. But Morisseau – a University of Michigan alumna and Detroit native who won a MacArthur “genius” grant (for good reason) just weeks ago – also wisely provides tension-releasing moments of levity, starting with her “Playwright’s Rules of Engagement,” which we hear before DPT’s production gets underway. (The first rule is, “You are allowed to laugh audibly” – clearly an attempt to thwart stodgy theatergoer tendencies.)
Some of the 90 minute show’s biggest laughs, though, stem from Mildred Victoria’s performance as Jasmine, Omari’s girlfriend, who vacillates between teenage solipsism and crushing, insightful candor in an eye blink. Marable, meanwhile, makes Xavier a man who’s fierce in his convictions, but also, in some ways, imprisoned by them, so that while we may not love him, we understand him. Yet it’s Strum who ultimately embodies the show’s beating heart, viscerally portraying Nya as a mother who’s struggling to make the right choices for her son – even while haunted by the notion that none of them will matter, and that his fate is pre-ordained.
Pipeline’s spark largely stems from Morisseau’s dialogue, which marries both naturalism and poetics (Nya’s repeatedly spooked by the last words of Gwendolyn Brook’s “We Real Cool,” and a racially charged classroom discussion of Richard Wright’s “Native Son” prompts Omari’s in-class conflict); and director Candis C. Jones keeps the show moving while letting us absorb not just the words, but what’s happening between the lines, too.
The sum of the play’s parts, however, never quite add up to the impact “Pipeline” aims to have. We get glimpses of Omari’s world, as a student of color at a mostly white school, courtesy of Jasmine; and we also gain access to the local public school alternative, via the teacher’s lounge at Nya’s workplace. But Xavier’s place in this push-pull construct remains remote and mysterious; so when a father/son showdown occurs near play’s end, and a line is drawn from their non-relationship to Omari’s behavior in class, it doesn’t feel earned.
But visual echoes of the play title abound via Jeromy Hopgood’s recognizably institutional scenic design. With a backdrop made to resemble drab, colorless cinder block walls, with smudged up, square windows running along the top, you inevitably wonder, before the show starts, whether you’ll be watching a story unfold in a school or in a prison – and that’s exactly the point. Hopgood also designed the show’s props and projections, which offers enlarged images of kids’ sneakered feet walking in the hallways between classes, graffiti, and chain link fences (and other visible means of enforcing separation in urban settings). Costume designer Shelby Newport made pointed choices regarding color, dressing Nya and Omari in yellow tones late in the show to align them visually, while Xavier stands close, but ultimately apart, in his green suit. Jennifer Fok’s lighting design skillfully focuses our eyes and sets the mood within scenes, Curtis Craig’s sound design plays its biggest role when Nya’s tormented by her fears for Omari’s future.
For what she hears is the voice of her own son speaking the last line of Brooks’ poem: “We die soon,” over and over in her head. And you get the sense, by play’s end, that no matter what choice she and Omari make about his next chapter, this inner voice will never, and can never, go silent.