Theatre Review: ‘Pipeline’ at Horizon Theatre

Horizon Theatre is presenting Dominique Morisseau’s powerful drama “Pipeline,” directed by Tinashe Kajese Bolden and Keith Arthur Bolden, running through April 21.

This is a show with quite a pedigree, starting with the playwright, who is a 2018 MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” recipient. This award is becoming a benchmark for recognizing true excellence in the arts; Tarell Alvin McCraney and Lin-Manuel Miranda, to name only two, are also recipients. “Pipeline” premiered at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theatre and won an Obie Award for playwriting for Ms. Morisseau.

The Boldens are distinguished, award-winning directors as well as actors. The six-person cast, about whom we’ll say more shortly, is rich in experience onstage, in television and film. It’s fascinating what one can learn from a theatre program: For example, Ms. Morisseau dedicates “Pipeline” to her mother, a “master educator and proud public schoolteacher for 40 years.”

For it’s inner-city public schools that we are dealing with here (and a private school also). The play’s title refers to the “school-to-prison pipeline” that all too easily traps the underprivileged, especially people of color, and funnels them directly into penal institutions. We are presented with a mother named Nya (Wendy Fox-Williams), a public schoolteacher who is so concerned that her son Omari (Stephen Ruffin) avoid such a fate that she has sent him to a private school. Yet we learn that private schools are not a panacea.

If you’re worried that the play could become a polemic about public schools, please don’t. This is a drama about people—strong, troubled, complex, sometimes heartbreaking people—who find themselves in nerve-jangling situations. Yes, the school background is vital here, but it’s the human beings who rivet us to our seats for 95 absorbing, suspenseful minutes—no intermission.

Now the private school that Nya and her ex-husband Xavier (Jay Jones) has sent their son proves problematic: As the play begins, Nya learns that Omari has been suspended for attacking a teacher. (This is not precisely the situation, but you must see the play. Suffice it to say Omari is in trouble and has temporarily vanished.)

Nya goes to Omari’s girlfriend Jasmine (Asia Howard) to find out what happened, and Jasmine, wise beyond her years, says “Sometimes people push you too far, make you feel like an animal from another jungle.” Omari has been pushed; because he’s one of the “token black kids,” a teacher demanded a response Omari was not willing to give.

At Nya’s school there are two lively fellow employees: Dun (Lamar K. Cheston), an attractive security guard; and Laurie (Vicki Ellis Gray), a fiery, foul-mouthed veteran teacher dangerously close to burnout. Their teacher’s lounge resembles the tense pause boxers have between rounds before they plunge back into the fray.

Omari shows up at home, and the scenes with his mother are full of emotion, usually suppressed on his part. As angry as Omari is with his current situation, he still loves his mother. And her fearful concern for what could be his fate is almost pathological. Ms. Fox-Williams and Mr. Ruffin are both superb, with gradations of power and subtlety that are breathtaking.

When Omari’s prosperous father shows up, we see that his absence has affected his son very deeply. He (Omari) is seething on one level and can hardly stand being in his presence (and Xavier is doing his best in this perilous situation). But then Omari shows us something else—and I can’t talk about it. I can only say that in this play Mr. Ruffin makes a quantum leap as an actor, and it’s a thrilling thing to see. You could hear a pin drop. He’s always been good, but his work here is transcendent.

“Pipeline” has a terrific cast working with a great script guided by fine directors. Horizon has gifted us with an important, gripping show; don’t miss it.

For tickets and information, visit horizontheatre.com.

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