In the program for Seattle Public Theater’s production of “Pipeline,” which finally takes the stage after being canceled two years ago due to the pandemic, director Faith Bennett Russell relays a personal story of her son. In her note, she talks about how her son is otherly abled and severely impacted by autism, and she goes on to describe how some of her son’s teachers would be intimidated by his size. Russell then raises many questions also lobbed by Dominique Morisseau’s “Pipeline”: Why are students of color seen as more threatening than their white counterparts? What’s a parent to do to protect their child from being criminalized on sight?
“Pipeline” follows Nya, an inner-city public schoolteacher as she tries to navigate the fallout after her teen son Omari receives his “third strike” at his upstate private school. For much of the play, what exactly Omari did to earn this final strike is obscured, leaving the audience with just enough to know that it was bad, it was caught on tape and it threatens to go viral. From there, playwright and educator Morisseau’s witty and incisive play examines an education system rigged against young men like Omari and grapples with what a mother like Nya can do to protect her son.
This production thrives around the performances of Dedra D. Woods as Nya and Tre Scott as Omari. Much of the play keeps these two apart as they separately try to figure out next steps with Omari’s suspension from private school looming. But it’s their scene together, finally back home for the first time, that highlights both of their talents. Scott skillfully moves from frustration that even his mother seems to have already judged him as some animal needing to be “tamed,” to panic over what to do next, his voice slightly shaking as if even he can’t believe what happened as he recalls the events of the day. Meanwhile Woods digs into the depths of love and desperation to find any way to keep her son out of the trouble society is already looking to attribute to him.
This conversation between an exhausted mother and a scared, frustrated son has the theater almost bursting at the seams and the audience leaning in, desperate for these two sides to come together. Russell’s direction in this conversation and others, especially one between Woods’ Nya and Hazel Rose Gibson’s Jasmine, Omari’s girlfriend who is reluctant to give up Omari’s whereabouts when Nya comes looking for him, beautifully balances everyone’s point of view. (Of course, credit to Morisseau’s script as well.) The sides are so even that some scenes turn into tense, heavyweight verbal bouts over Omari’s future and legacy.
Central to “Pipeline” is both a question of education and of parenting. For fear of Omari’s future should he attend public school, like the one where Nya teaches, divorced parents Nya and Xavier (Corey Spruill) send him to an upstate private school. Now, with Omari threatened to be kicked out, his absent father, present in Omari’s life primarily through checks in the mail, returns to take over. The shift from confident, if worried, to insecure when Xavier reenters the picture is perfectly captured by Woods. The moment Spruill’s Xavier steps on stage wearing a dapper three-piece suit (costume design by Janelle Kimbrough), he overrides Nya’s ideas, as if having their son move in with him — another desperate search for a “better environment” for Omari — will somehow guarantee a “better” future.
Morisseau’s play is powerful and funny (much credit to the comedic talents of Andrew Lee Creech as school security guard Dun), yet this production left me feeling a bit short of that final cathartic moment. At some point in the night, the tension dissipates. In part, I think this can be attributed to the handling of an Omari specter that repeatedly haunts Nya with the words of Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “We Real Cool” (a poem which Morisseau has said used to haunt her). These moments are the rare points of discord between Woods, Scott and Russell, who all seem to have different ideas of how those moments play — Woods, seeing a visage frightening enough to cause panic attacks; Scott, smug and almost sarcastically taunting in his portrayal; and Russell, with a vision that doesn’t quite mesh the two.
But the loosening of tension can also be attributed to some lengthy transitions. The set design from Margaret Toomey is relatively sparse, with a backdrop emulating what you might see in a large lecture hall, made to look like a series of blackboards that could slide up or down to reveal more blackboards underneath. This backdrop splits in the middle, sliding apart to make room for a door while also providing the only way on stage for any set pieces. The idea is clever, and provided a nice playground for lighting and projection designer Ahren Buhmann to play, but it also left gaps that let the air out of the room.
Toward the end of the play, there’s a moment where Xavier threatens to choke the life out of Omari. Omari asks what’s stopping him and Xavier responds by saying, “Witnesses.” In the context of this play, which sits so squarely in a discussion around the perceived violent nature of Black men, this is a real threat, and is played as such by Spruill and Scott. However, by that point, the tone had so shifted that, for multiple people in the audience, that moment played as a joke.