Black literature matters. That’s one key to Dominique Morisseau’s powerful, passionate, and intelligent new play, Pipeline, at Lincoln Center’s Newhouse Theater. Its central figure is Nya (Karen Pittman), an inner-city high school English teacher whose curriculum includes African-American works long sanctified by time. During much of the action, Nya’s struggling to din into her class the multiple resonances of “We Real Cool,” a terse, pungent poem by Gwendolyn Brooks (1917–2000), from Brooks’s 1960 collection, The Bean Eaters. A mordantly deadpan portrait of high school dropouts hanging out in a pool hall, the eight-line poem consists of eight three-word sentences, each beginning with the word “We.” Brooks achieves an unnerving jazzlike syncopation by placing each “We,” except for the very first one, at the end of the previous line (“We real cool. We/Left school. We”), so that the final sentence, “We/Die soon,” leaves its last two words hanging in stark isolation.
Nya’s fixation on this poem is no mere reading-list matter. Words and phrases from it recur, repeatedly — on her lips, in her visions, in projections on the wall behind her — as she battles to rescue her own teenage son, Omari (Namir Smallwood), from a future potentially as grim as that adumbrated in Brooks’s poem. Nya’s affluent ex-husband, Xavier (Morocco Omari), has placed Omari in a posh private school upstate, where the combination of his cultural distance from the upper-crust students and his unhappiness over his parents’ divorce has put the sensitive youngster into a state of stress every bit as extreme as his mother’s.
Omari’s stress, we learn at the start, has already exploded, in — where else? — an English class, during a discussion of another seminal work of black literature, Richard Wright’s Native Son. Insistently singled out by a white teacher who demands to hear his views on the crime that Wright’s hero, Bigger Thomas, commits — we can’t guess the teacher’s motives, since the significant scene is narrated, not seen — Omari has tried to walk out of the classroom and, when reprimanded, shoved the teacher against a blackboard. Expulsion and a potential assault charge loom. Nya’s panic, which by the end of the ninety-minute play has brought her to a state of collapse and temporary hospitalization, stems from the terror of seeing her promising son face the prospect of slipping down the “pipeline” that leads so many black teens from school to jail to the two words that dangle at the end of Brooks’s poem. Not coincidentally, in the vision that keeps disrupting Nya’s teaching life, she imagines her son, stalking the classroom zombie-like, repeating fragments of the poem till they turn into chilling lumps of verbal concrete.
Morisseau embeds Nya’s fevered visions and Omari’s soul-searching torments in a harsh, sharply written naturalistic context that carries its own troubling weirdness. As if taking their cue from mother and son, nearly every other character in the play seems on the edge of a breakdown. The script’s two most flamboyant opportunities, brilliantly seized on in Lileana Blain-Cruz’s astutely shaped production, are given to Omari’s girlfriend, Jasmine (Heather Velazquez), and Nya’s white fellow teacher, Laurie (Tasha Lawrence). Both characters rant, in their vastly different ways, and Morisseau’s sharp linguistic sense catches the varied elements that go into each woman’s obsessive stream of talk: Jasmine’s a marvelous, painfully funny mixture of millennial narcissism, toughness, old-style romantic yearning, and a lonely girl’s desperate neediness; Laurie’s a madcap intertwining of personal disappointment, social indignation, reflexive contempt for the public school system’s bureaucracy, and a swagger born of long experience at maintaining classroom discipline, all coated with a love of teaching and a frantic joy at the thought of any kid learning something. Velazquez and Lawrence ride these characters’ wildly efflorescent outbursts with a blend of smart know-how and the raucous excitement of teens on a roller coaster.
The men, in contrast, come off as relatively sedate figures, though equally complex, full of hesitations and second thoughts. Xavier, proud of his business success and obstinately determined to hold his troubled son to his own standard, sustains his civility, in bitter confrontations with his ex-wife and his son, by repressing his anger: Rather than lose his temper, he goes out for a breath of fresh air. Dun (Jaime Lincoln Smith), a school security guard with an obvious fondness for Nya, embodies at a lower economic level the same struggle Xavier faces (and which also surfaces in young Omari’s meditations on Bigger Thomas): the perpetual, agonized self-restraint of black men fighting to keep the white world from reducing them to stereotypes. Both actors give subtly shaded performances, elegantly counterbalancing the more demonstrative female roles.
The adult males’ repressed impulses, along with the discomfort that palpably arises when Nya confronts Xavier, give Pipeline its distinctive extra resonance: This is not a facile message drama about the pathway from school to prison, but a tragedy, in which you see the very striving that has enabled the parents to pull themselves up into a better life passed on to their son, an unexpected hidden cost of education. For African Americans, Morisseau suggests, the extra effort to stay securely in the middle class itself constitutes another, hitherto unexplored segment of that same grim pipeline. And the African-American literary works, like “We Real Cool” and Native Son, put on reading lists to help students grasp our divided racial past, become instead markers of its bitter continuation in the present. To feel the weight of that sorrow, you need only look on Pittman’s face — no longer the smiling face of the sleekly successful lawyer she played in Disgraced three years ago, but a near-tragic mask, careworn and vulnerable, quailing at the insistent beat of that Gwendolyn Brooks poem, with its unyielding summons from a fate that all human sanity says should not be inevitable.
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater
150 West 65th Street
Through August 27