By Bill Marx
Dominique Morisseau’s earnest Pipeline is a “message” play, American style.
Pipeline by Dominique Morisseau. Directed by Dawn M. Simmons. Produced by The Nora Theatre Company & WAM Theatre at Central Square Theatre, 450 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge, MA, through March 29.
In the early 1930s, Bertolt Brecht wrote a series of scripts with music that he grouped under the term lehrstücke (lesson plays), unorthodox texts that were designed to teach social and communal virtues of the generally anticapitalist variety. (At least one of these efforts was banned by the police.) Brecht wrote that the form, “the product of certain musical, dramatic, and political theories, all of which envisage the collective practice of art, is designed to clarify the ideas of the authors and of all those taking part, not to provide anybody with an emotional experience.” That resistance to easy emotionality came to mind while watching Dominique Morisseau’s earnest Pipeline, which is a “message” play, American style. There is lots of emoting here and not much of a chance that there will be any objections to the evening’s pedagogy. Not only does the script lean into melodrama among the relatively well-to-do — rather than tackle social critique — but the lessons-to-be-learned are spelled out so that the audience doesn’t have that much to do.
At the center of Pipeline is a troubled black family made up of a protective mother, Nya (Alexandria Danielle King), who teaches in an inner-city high school, her corporate ex-husband Xavier (Kevin Craig West), and their teenage son Omari (Hubens “Bobby” Cius), who has recently had an altercation with a teacher during a class (discussing Richard Wright’s Native Son). He is in danger of being expelled from the tony prep school his parents have placed him in. Omari is filled with rage, and Morisseau’s aim is to look at where his alienation comes from, exploring ways it can be acknowledged though also steered in constructive, rather than self-destructive, paths. Nya is clearly overwhelmed by her son’s struggles; her panic is compounded by the violence and anger at her school. Xavier is far less involved and upset.
At times, Pipeline seems to be working out a “Woman on the Edge of a Breakdown” scenario, as Nya becomes increasingly fraught, frenzied, and paralyzed. It is a potentially interesting approach — the debilitating vulnerability of parents who feel that they need to intervene but don’t know how. The generation gap is becoming an abyss and some are in danger of falling in.
But Morisseau does not dig deep into Nya’s meltdown. Instead, a confrontation between father and son takes us into stereotypical dysfunctional territory, along with scenes in which Nya, white teacher Laurie (Barbara Douglas), and black security guard Dun (James Ricardo Milord) find themselves at loggerheads confronting a terrifying disruption at the school. Omari’s girlfriend, Jasmine (Sandra Seoane-Serí), attends the same prep school and makes some amusing, if predictable, comments about how the “bourgeois bitches” at the institution make life difficult. Higher echelon education is seen — by many — as an expensive place of safety, a stepping stone to the American dream — but it is far more complicated.
So what is the alternative? Nya makes much about the need to break the rules but, as in Skeleton Crew, Morisseau’s play about the closure of an auto plant and union impotence (staged by the Huntington Theatre Company in 2018), the dramatist is not comfortable (or willing) to look outside of broken family dynamics when taking up troubling sociopolitical problems. There are external causes for Omari’s furies — history of oppression, those who run and police the school, who make the rules, who pay the teacher’s salaries. The messages we are handed, helpful as they are — about giving the young space to make mistakes, about paying them serious attention — are admirable but not new, and easy enough for audiences to applaud. Remaking ourselves and our institutions in ways that would mitigate Omari’s rage would make for a far more formidable but valuable lehrstück — but that would mean stepping out of the comfortable confines of realism and calling out the powerful.
The Nora Theatre Company & WAM Theatre production is sturdily and efficiently directed by Dawn M. Simmons, who highlights the emotional payoffs, generally keeping the clashes away from the fidgety ping-pong of soap opera, though there is some of that. The performances are solid, aside from Kevin Craig West’s overactive Xavier, with Cius and King establishing a nicely modulated rapport between their characters. It is too bad that they, like us, end up being taught such an unremarkable lesson.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of the Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and the Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created the Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.