By ANNE SIEGEL
MILWAUKEE, WI. – Next Act, one of the city’s longest-running theaters, opens the new year with an exhilarating, funny and disturbing Wisconsin premiere of Dominique Morisseau’s Pipeline. The play, which runs one hour and 40 minutes without an intermission, moves at breathtaking speed as it describes the world of a Black family trying to overcome pitfalls facing their young son.
The play’s title, Pipeline, refers to the school-to-prison route followed by a large number of young Black men. In order to interrupt this sequence, the family has worked hard to put their son, Omari (Ibraheem Farmer), into a nearly all-white private academy. The family knows the realities of public school very well; the mother (Nya) teaches in one.
The play opens in Nya’s public school. One of her co-workers, a battle-scarred veteran (Laurie), returns after recovering from plastic surgery. A few weeks earlier, someone in her failing student’s family had split her face open with a knife during a school conference. That’s only one glimpse of what goes on in this place.
But this isn’t Laurie’s story, nor is it Omari’s. The playwright’s main focus is on Nya (beautifully played by Kristin E. Ellis) and her near-constant fear of losing her son to prison or, worse, death. Ellis keeps this tension alive throughout the play, which is no small accomplishment. At times, she tries to tamp down her fear and anger. But even in the play’s lighter moments (and there are many), Nya is never far from coming unraveled.
A Mother’s Fear for Her Only Child
Eventually, Nya does come unraveled, and she is transported by ambulance to a hospital. After examining her, the doctors disagree whether she’s had a nervous breakdown or a severe panic attack. But semantics aren’t important to Nya. She worries that her son, who recently attacked a teacher, may be expelled and, possibly, prosecuted. She is further stressed at having to call his father, her ex-husband Xavier, to inform him of this disturbing news. She knows what his reaction will be. In a confession that only the audience hears, she still loves and misses her ex. Xavier, however, has decided to move on with his life. This further complicates Nya’s feelings.
Any parent can relate to the fears expressed by Nya and Xavier. Omari, a teen, doesn’t offer up much conversation with either of his parents. Instead, he confides in his girlfriend Jasmine, who also attends the white academy.
Malaina Moore, as Jasmine, gives an even more impressive performance here than in her previous role as L’il Mama in the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre production of Stew. With assistance from Pipeline director Jamil A.C. Mangan and her fellow actors, Moore is able to move easily between the playwright’s more poetic phrases to lines that are mostly comprised of swear words. She makes her character believable and sympathetic. The audience is drawn toward the connection she shares with Omari. Their scenes together are touching and very naturalistic.
Good Intentions, Bad Results
But, as previously mentioned, this is at heart Nya’s story. At the suggestion of her ex-husband, she has pinned all her hopes on getting Omari out of the “hood,” in order to create new opportunities for his future. The playwright doesn’t give any easy answers on how they will get through the current mess, and that is one of the play’s strengths. The audience is left with the task of creating Omari’s next chapter.
However, Morisseau ends her play on a somewhat promising note. Not surprisingly, the staging of this final scene is somewhat poetic. There’s also an actual poem – by a black poet – that is repeated several times throughout the play. Nya introduces the poem to her class, and it becomes a haunting background throughout the rest of the play.
As Omari, Ibraheem Farmer is so good that he makes his portrayal look easy. Omari is a self-conscious teen who often takes a stand without exactly knowing why. He just acts the way he feels. He describes the steps that led him to attack his teacher. Omari realizes that his behavior is unacceptable; still, he is not shy about pointing out that he basically feels uncomfortable on campus. While there may be an undercurrent of rage in Omari, Farmer mainly presents him as unassured youth who is trying to become a man. He is caught between reaching out towards his parents and, simultaneously, rejecting them.
Minor Characters Complete Strong Cast
The minor characters lend equally strong performances as the family. Milwaukee veteran actor Tami Workentin is a gem as a toughed public schoolteacher. When Nya remarks that Laurie is “a pistol,” Laurie immediately responds with “I’m a machine gun.” Reflecting on recent incidents in her class, Laurie retreats to the teacher’s lounge, saying “it’s like the Crips and the Bloods out there.”
Equally fine is James Carrington as Dun, an overworked school security guard. He pledges to have the teachers’ backs, despite the many duties that demand his attention. When he comes up short, he reminds Laurie that – unlike her – he doesn’t have the option of a cushy retirement ahead of him.
Also, not to be missed is Will Sims II in his portrayal as Xavier.
Scenic direction by Jamil A.C. Morgan and Producing Artistic Director David Cecsarini use a minimal number of set pieces to tell the story. The set relies heavily on projections to create the look and feel of a public high school. Amy Horst’s realistic costumes range from the preppy school outfits worn by Omari and Jasmine to the executive attire worn by Omari’s father. Noele Stollmack illuminates the drama with shifting currents of lights, told in sequence with composer Carter “Roc” Manjan, Jr.’s subtle music. Chické Johnson is responsible for the necessary projections and images.
Myriad themes and lessons course throughout Morisseau’s play, while Next Act does a fantastic job of bringing all the essential elements together. It is a particularly powerful play and a highlight of Next Act’s 32nd season. It’s a must-see production for all ages and, in particular, for young people (high school age and up).
Pipeline plays with strict COVID protocols in place requiring masks and proof vaccination through March 6 in the Next Act Theatre. For tickets, contact the box office at 414.278.0765 or go to nextact.org.