Relevant Ideas Flow
in American Stage’s Pipeline
Expect gripping drama and first-rate performances but no easy answers from playwright Dominique Morisseau’s thought-provoking script.
BY KEVEN RENKEN | Feb. 5, 2019
For a tight little piece of theater, Pipeline certainly has a lot to say.
The disillusionment and fury of the young American black male. The complex ties that bind mothers and sons. The clusterf**** that is the American educational system, especially when it comes to minority students. The absence of the patriarchy. Those are just some of the issues brought to light in Dominique Morisseau’s lean, mean 90-minute script.
Of course with so many balls in the air, a couple of them are bound to be dropped. Ultimately, more questions are being asked than answered. But if by asking questions a play prompts discussion (my husband and I talked about it most of the way home) then that is a truly great thing indeed.
The protagonist of American Stage’s production (which runs through Feb. 24) begins the show at the end of her wits. Nya (Gillian Glasco) is a divorced teacher of troubled teen Omari (Andrew Montgomery Coleman). O has recently assaulted a teacher (his third strike) and the school is threatening to expel him. The lengths Nya will go to save her son make up the bulk of the plot, though it doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the complexities of the decisions she has to make (“I want instructions,” she begs her son at one point).
Where to begin to sing the virtues of such an outstanding production? With the lead of course. At the head of an outstanding cast — which also includes Cranston Cumberbatch as a possible suitor, Aaron Morton as her stone-cold ex, and Cynthia Beckert as a harried co-worker – Glasco is beyond compare as Nya. She has the vocal patterns and a combination of toughness and vulnerability that is reminiscent of Viola Davis – here’s hoping she works again and again in the Tampa area.
Director L. Peter Callender clearly understands the complexities and frailties of human interaction, though the configuration of the seating in the theater sometimes makes blocking a bit of a challenge. Special mention must go to Jerid Fox, whose ever-shifting set was a masterwork (only the hospital seating quavered and shook under O’s rage in one scene).
There were, as I said before, a few dropped balls, some of which had to do with the script itself. Jasmine, O’s girlfriend, seems to dip too much at times into the sassy black girl stereotype (despite Kiara Hines’ fine work). An eleventh-hour confrontation between O and his father ends rather unconvincingly in Xavier shaken by what his son says to him (and further exacerbates the too easy suggestion that the root of all O’s problems are because of the lack of a father figure in his life). Not to belittle Coleman’s performance as O, but it is entirely possible that he is a little bit miscast in this role.
But I’m picking here. If one of the jobs of theater is to ask questions, probe, shine a light on the world, then Pipeline does that exceedingly well.
If this is the kind of theater that Bay area companies are doing then the local theater community is in very good shape. And if theater keeps doing its job then maybe the world will be a better place eventually as well. One can only hope.