In Dominique Morisseau’s poignant drama Pipeline (★★★☆☆), high schooler Omari (Justin Weaks), one of the few black or Latino students at his private school, feels constantly singled out to speak for an entire people. He feels the burden of representing to his peers and even his teachers the so-called black perspective on culture, literature, violence, everything. In a blazing speech to his concerned single mom Nya (Andrea Harris Smith), he tells her about feeling probed and provoked to unleash a rage that everyone seems to expect he’s carrying.
In his raw performance, Weaks cracks open that monologue to reveal the paradox that all the scrutiny of Omari’s rage is in itself enraging. Morisseau, whose Skeleton Crew was mounted in a powerful 2017 production at Studio, writes characters with a way of expressing themselves so an audience can understand what they’re experiencing. She writes good rants, and actors love a good rant. Directing Studio’s crisp new production, Awoye Timpo allows the cast space on scenic designer Arnulfo Maldonado’s sterile-white classroom and breakroom set to let it all out. Pilar Witherspoon does so with exuberant comic fury, as Laurie, Nya’s fellow teacher at a public high school, where, she ruefully suggests, “half these kids suffer from mental illness.” But Nya can’t resign herself to such glib assessments of her students, or her son.
The issue of kids’ mental health and well-being is more complicated for Nya, who must deal with the aftermath when Omari is involved in a violent incident at his school. Nya expresses herself more roundly, in softness and in anger, with confusion and with urgency, and Harris finesses the character’s way forward in what threatens to become a lose-lose situation for her dear boy. She is the character we might come to know best beyond their bluster — including Omari’s Latina girlfriend Jasmine (Monica Rae Summers Gonzalez), also a student at his school, and his barely-there dad Xavier (Bjorn DuPaty).
As much as they all are given an opportunity to stake out a position on Omari’s future, only Nya comes fully into view as a protagonist in the story. Like shards of a broken mirror, the other characters reflect fragments of insight or human vulnerability, but the pieces don’t coalesce into a complete picture. The whole story here — exploring the school-to-prison pipeline that ensnares so many young black men — remains somewhat obscure, even as individual scenes bare searing glimpses of one black family trying to plot a safe course around the worst expectations.
Pipeline runs through Feb. 16, at the Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Tickets are $20 to $90. Call 202-332-3300, or visit www.StudioTheatre.org.
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