One of 25 winners of the MacArthur Foundation’s “Genius Grant” last year, playwright Dominique Morisseau has begun, somewhat belatedly, a stealth invasion of the Queen City. How stealthy? UNC Charlotte and Three Bone Theatre, the first two outfits to present Morisseau works here, both latched onto the same acclaimed Detroit ‘67 for productions that would have opened a little more than a month apart.
That mutual unawareness was mercifully cleared up. Instead of two competing productions of the same 2013 script, Three Bone introduces us to Morisseau with a newer work, Pipeline, which premiered at Lincoln Center two summers ago. The play is currently running at Duke Energy Theater at Spirit Square through Aug. 31. UNC Charlotte’s ’67 matriculates on Sept. 27 at Robinson Hall’s Black Box Theater.
With a detached black dad checking his smartphone instead of making quality time for his teenage son, Pipeline feels 50 years more contemporary than Detroit must be. Yet the tide that high school English teacher Nya desperately resists — the progression of young black men’s lives from school to prison — comes at her with the lethal force of an eternal verity. Like mythic Greek royals seeking to avoid a sure fate pronounced by a Delphic oracle, Nya and her ex-husband Xavier have sent their son Omari off to a private boarding school to avoid the inner-city trail to incarceration.
It isn’t working. Although he isn’t dealing drugs, isn’t in a gang and has a girlfriend who values him, Omari is volatile. In a classroom discussion of Richard Wright’s Native Son, the teacher has zeroed in on him to explain why Bigger Thomas explodes with such anger and violence — presumably because he, as the black kid in the class, was best qualified to understand.
The questioning escalates in a confrontation and then a physical action from Omari that seems open to dispute. Push, shove, assault, or a simple attempt to leave the room? Whatever happened — we never see the viral video — Omari not only faces possible expulsion but the teacher might press charges. Jail may already be on the horizon.
Nobody takes this unexpected defeat harder than Nya. She hasn’t merely been fighting against this tide of imprisonment and doom in her family. Every day in her classroom, she fights the good fight with wave after wave of young men, period after period, year after year. Teaching Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem “We Real Cool,” written in 1959, Nya doesn’t merely wish her students to understand what the dropout pool players are saying in their semi-literate three-word sentences, she wants them to avoid living it.
So as Nya melts down in front of her students, Omari’s fate and her defeat acquire an Arthur Miller All My Sons moral weight, for she is angered and tinged with guilt at the same time. She is dangerous and out of control as she barges into Jasmine’s dorm room, demanding to know where her son has run off to.
Here is probably the best entry point into Morisseau’s subtext, for Nya gets a free pass on losing her cool and overstepping where Omari doesn’t. Just don’t get so caught up in Nya’s trespasses that you sleep on those of her colleague, Laurie, a white teacher. My first impulses were to see her as an empathizing sounding board for Nya’s anguished feelings and, together with security guard Dun, as a co-worker who underscores the sense of working in a terrifying, corrupting jungle teeming with at-risk youth.
Ah, but keep your eye on what happens after Laurie snaps, striking one of her students — to break up a fight! Nya and Dun hurl criticism at Laurie, and surely there will be consequences from the New York City school administration. But nobody onstage, not even Nya, believes that Laurie might be fired (in effect, expelled) and nobody, including me, entertains the notion that she might be brought up on assault charges.
These assumptions are the exact opposite of what we take for granted as applying to the Omaris, the Trayvons and their black brethren striving to reach adulthood in America without being jailed or shot down in cold blood. We’ve all been numbed by this norm that is so hard-wired into American life.
While scene changes are a bit plodding in this Three Bone production, Ryan Maloney’s set design takes us where we need to go, and his projections add liveliness to the action, especially the poetry demo. Directing this meaty, turbulent and layered script, Sidney Horton keeps the heat at about medium-high, so the playwright’s light shines through and we don’t suffer exhaustion.
And my goodness, the high-grade performances we get from LeShea Nicole as Nya and Susan Stein as Laurie make Horton look like the genius. Nicole discards all the irony we’ve seen from her in the past and gives us an earnestness and a heart-on-my-sleeve openness that marks an artistic breakthrough. When Nya teaches the last sentence of the Brooks poem, “We Die soon,” we get the full impact of what she feels is at stake.
Yet Nicole doesn’t get the luxury of delivering full-bore anger and toughness all the time, as Stein does. Nya has a tender maternal side that peeps through even in the confrontation with Jasmine, Omari’s girlfriend. Stein offers us the sort of scrappy New Yorker whom I remember seeing and hearing so often when I was growing up. Yeah, her Laurie is back on the job after having her face put back together, but don’t you dare pity her.
All of Nya’s fire and fury would be for naught if Morisseau hadn’t endowed Omari with enough complexity, strength and nuance for her to care about. Deandre Sanders takes a beautiful approach, playing Omari as a troubled young man rather than an immature teen. Nor does Sanders mute Omari’s big blind spot, his perpetually seething anger toward his dad. Omari’s scenes with Jasmine, his mom and his dad are all multifaceted — Sanders projecting a manly grace and style that only partly veil the powder keg. Omari and his dad arguably draw the most noteworthy of Davita Galloway’s costume designs. That never hurts.
Slick, cold, and distant as he may be, Graham Williams as Xavier lets us know with only a trace of bitterness that he has taken the bullet for the breakup of his marriage to Nya. She slammed the door on him, now wants him back, and all this while she has been peddling the myth that he abandoned his family — stoking Omari’s anger and partiality with the deception. So the guilt that afflicts Nya is not at all numinous.
Morisseau and Horton don’t neglect the smallest roles. While somewhat annoying in his pursuit of Nya, Marcus Fitzpatrick as Dun ably makes his point that the English teacher might be doing some tax-bracket profiling in undervaluing the school security guard. Meanwhile, Alexis Jones gets to spray Jasmine with a few immature traits, letting us know there are some smarts mixed in with the coed’s insecurities and, in her showdown with Nya, that there is true worth behind her petulance.