Review: Alchemy Theatre's Pipeline
Weak choices undermine the hard-hitting angst that drives this play
Reviewed by Bob Abelman, Fri., Sept. 15, 2023
Did you catch the national tour of Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations when it came through town this March? That was playwright Dominique Morisseau, who in 2017 composed the uncharacteristically thin script for this entertaining but unremarkable jukebox musical. Clearly, she was saving the really good stuff for Pipeline – a powerful, emotionally immersive play first seen at New York City's Lincoln Center and currently onstage at Alchemy Theatre.
The title of the play refers to our country's school-to-prison pipeline, where the overzealous suspension and expulsion of underprivileged and disadvantaged public school students has led to their being unceremoniously funneled into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Pipeline articulates the same sociopolitical and economic struggles of the Black community as Morisseau's other work, including Ain't Too Proud and the provocative, award-winning three-play cycle known as The Detroit Project, which includes Skeleton Crew, Paradise Blue, and Detroit '67.
Here, we find Nya (Chelsea Manasseri), a dedicated inner-city English teacher who sends her own son, Omari (Elijah Brooks), to a private boarding school financed by her ex-husband, Xavier (Erv Brown), in order to protect the young man from the fate of the students she teaches. But Omari is in danger of expulsion and legal action after assaulting a teacher who he believes singled him out unfairly and provoked him during a class discussion about why young Black men living in poverty descend into acts of violence.
The focus and fashion of this play are established early, with Nya discussing Gwendolyn Brooks' short poem "We Real Cool" ("We real cool. We/ Left school. We/ Lurk late. We/ Strike straight. We/ Sing sin. We/ Thin gin. We/ Jazz June. We/ Die soon.") with her own students. She tells them that not only do the words speak to the tragic brotherhood of the streets, but their structure and rhythm inform the message.
So too does Morisseau's own writing, where harsh realities are exposed through rich dialogue and passionate monologues infused with heightened language and distinctively expressive free-verse poetry. All this gives voice to the profound feelings of exasperation and foreboding anxiety that weigh down each character, whose lives have become an ongoing exercise of helplessness and futility. These feelings drive this play. Unfortunately, they don't always drive this production.
Manasseri turns in a gut-wrenchingly vulnerable performance as Nya, a woman on the front line of crisis. Her moments of soliloquy are piercing, as is her delivery of lines that express the constant duress felt by every mother of a Black teenager. Her son's anger is "not his sin," she says. "It's his inheritance." Similarly effective, with brilliant moments of their own, are Nancy Gray as Laurie, a battle-scarred white educator who has recently been a victim of classroom violence; Godwin Balogun as Dun, an eloquent spokesperson for every well-intended but woefully underpaid and outnumbered school security guard; Brown as the father who failed his family; and Katherine Sawyer as Jasmine, Omari's effusive, profoundly self-aware girlfriend and schoolmate. They're all terrific.
Only Brooks fails to deliver. His flat portrayal of young Omari results in an uninteresting, disengaged central character that betrays the playwright's vision of him "wrestling with his identity" and possessing "rage without release" (as noted in the forward of the script), offers little for his fellow actors to play against, and underplays the remarkable dialogue he is given, which includes what should have been a poignant recitation of the aforementioned poem, "We Real Cool."
Much of Simone Raquel Alexander's direction also falls flat by missing key moments where the written word begs for more dramatic staging and impactful production values. Zackary Read's lighting illuminates but rarely elucidates and Christopher Shea's projections during scene changes – a mixture of startling video of classroom violence and lackluster clip art images of empty school corridors – don't quite manage to sustain the undercurrent of angst that the playwright worked so hard to create. Also, the few set-pieces that occupy an otherwise empty performance space seem to have been selected to manage quick scene changes rather than serve as tools to facilitate the storytelling.
And yet, Pipeline stands up to these shortcomings. The writing is brilliant, and Manasseri working the room is most certainly worth seeing.
Alchemy Theatre's Pipeline130 N. Pedernales #318
Through Sept. 30
Running time: 85 min.