Playwright: Dominique Morisseau
At: Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.. Tickets: $27-60; VictoryGardens.org . Runs through: March 3
Thinking about Pipeline, here's what comes to mind: two incredible supporting characters and a Gwendolyn Brooks poem.
Considering the play is about a Black mother and her teenage son, that's problematic.
Playwright Dominique Morisseau is a MacArthur Fellow, whose musical based on The Temptations, Ain't Too Proud to Beg, is Broadway-bound. Clearly, she has chops. But in the case of Pipeline, Morisseau may have gotten bogged down in the responsibility of telling a very important and very universal story and as a result, the two characters the audience is supposed to care about the most are relegated to character types without much nuance.
Nya ( Tyla Abercrumbie ) is a single mom who teaches in a large urban public school. However, she and her ex-husband Xavier ( Mark Spates Smith ) have chosen to send their own son to an exclusive private academy upstate so Omari ( Matthew Elam ) can have more opportunities. But when Omari faces expulsion for an altercation and swears he was provoked, primary parent Nya is forced to confront her teen's actions and her own expectations versus the harsh reality of being Black in America.
The short Brooks poem "We Real Cool" is the play's through-line. That's a good idea in theory as the poem looks at young Black men engaging in adolescent shenanigans and paying the price with their lives. In practice, however, Morisseau's writing of Nya and Omari pales in comparison to Brooks' spare, intense verse. The narrators of Brooks' poem speak few words but feel completely real, in sharp contrast to the worried Black mother and her son who is justifiably angry at a world who has set him up to failtimely to be sure, but more stand-ins than living, breathing individuals. Though Nya and Omari share several scenes, their relationship and history feel undefined at best: we mostly see them arguing followed by a resolution that doesn't feel earned.
Director Cheryl Lynn Bruce was most recently seen onstage in Steppenwolf's Familiar. She does her best with the shadowy characterizations, and stages balletic scene transitions that are lovely to behold. Abercrumbie and Elam, both fine actors, make a palpable effort to flesh out mother and son.
As a playwright, Morisseau fares much better with her supporting characters: namely, Nya's colleague Laurie ( Janet Ulrich Brooks ) and Omari's girlfriend Jasmine ( Aurora Real de Asua ). The former is a bombastic, worn-out teacher who's just returned from medical leave after enduring violence from a student's family. Her tough talk and gallows humor make for a funny, fascinating character and Brooks nails every syllable. Real de Asua's Jasmine, along with Omari is one of the private school's few nonwhite students. Jasmine actually has a believable character arc as well as the blind love and strange precociousness of teen girls everywhere, and the actress has repeatedly proven her knack for portraying high schoolers ( Goodman's The Wolves, Rivendell's Firebirds Take the Field ).
The play's title refers to the school-to-prison pipeline common to young adults of color, who historically face harsher consequences from teachers, administrators and the law. Nya and Omari's struggles are tragically frequent, but Morisseau doesn't quite know how to make them personal. As it stands, Pipeline is well-directed and even better-acted, but the source material is a host of unrealized potential. What could be powerful is, instead, meh.