Early on in Dominique Morisseau’s play “Pipeline,” now receiving its Chicago premiere at Victory Gardens Theater, we learn that an African-American teen named Omari (Matthew Elam) has been involved in a violent encounter at his private boarding school, that there’s a video of it, and that the school will almost certainly expel him and may — even worse — press charges.
It’s certainly a crisp, compelling narrative start, drawing us quickly and quite deeply into the understandable distress of Omari’s mother Nya (Tyla Abercrumbie), a schoolteacher at an urban public school rife with its own security issues.
Given the title, it’s not unfair to expect the play to focus on the issue of whether or not Omari will go from the privilege of private school to the confines of prison, to contemplate whether it’s a fair process and outcome and what the unfolding story says about our education system, our criminal justice system, our prison system, racial justice, class differences and more.
When: Through March 3
Where: Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln
Tickets: $27 – $60
Run time: 1 hour and 25 minutes, with no intermission
That’s not quite what happens. Although those thematic elements are certainly all there, the narrative itself becomes so much of an internal one, focused mostly on Nya, that the play largely loses sight of the individual — and awfully high — stakes at hand for Omari.
Just as an example, Nya spends much of the play wondering if she did something wrong, particularly in sending her son to the posh boarding school “upstate” rather than the gritty one where she teaches. Perhaps she uprooted him, at the urging of her ex-husband Xavier (Mark Spates Smith) and with the help of his ample financial resources, from where he really belongs, stripping him of a clear identity and inciting the very problems that she meant to prevent.
That’s interesting, sure. But given the circumstances, wouldn’t now rather seem the time for the family to think about, say, getting the kid a lawyer?
It’s these choices that keep “Pipeline” from picking up narrative momentum. The play has more than one false start: Omari runs away, but then doesn’t. Xavier has a plan to call the school and declare a giant change to Omari’s life, hoping that will help the situation. But then, after a scene that exposes the deep rift between rebellious son and financially generous but physically and emotionally distant father, doesn’t.
Morisseau is exceptionally talented. She deservedly won a MacArthur “genius” award last year, and her latest work, the book for the musical about the Temptations, is heading to Broadway. Her play “Skeleton Crew,” staged at Northlight Theatre and part of a trilogy of works set in Detroit, was one of the best Chicago productions of 2018. That work deftly balanced the combination of social forces and precisely drawn individual characters and relationships, resulting in an involving tale with profound thematic breadth.
And although “Pipeline” can be frustrating, it definitely has some great writing in it. The play has believable, engaging, emotionally dramatic scenes, and characters with big personalities and complex flaws. The biggest personalities actually belong to supporting characters: Omari’s self-consciously love-obsessed girlfriend Jasmine (Aurora Real de Asua), and Nya’s fellow teacher Laurie (the always inestimable Janet Ulrich Brooks), who views coming into school each day as a war and who either seems to create that reality or be the only one to see it clearly.
The play also has a poetic slant, with Nya’s passionate class lecture on a Gwendolyn Brooks poem combining with Omari’s stylized and evocative recitation of it providing the work with a heartfelt, literary highlight. The other most purely expressive moment comes when we see Omari let loose and dance; it doesn’t advance the story, but it gives us the freest, least filtered view of Omari as a kid with deep feelings that can be joyful as well as angry.
While the production, directed by prolific actress Cheryl Lynn Bruce, is certainly solid, it may have benefited from an even more stylized production — with just a few pieces of furniture in Andrew Boyce’s set design moved around to suggest the various venues, the environment feels minimal but not theatrical.
But I have a feeling that this production will most remembered most for an early-career Chicago performance by the young actor Matthew Elam, a recent BFA graduate from DePaul. To Omari, he brings an intense intelligence, an unforced charisma, an essential likability and, most importantly, a compelling sense that he doesn’t understand his own actions or feelings.
This is a deeply flawed play by an important playwright, and with a young actor delivering a performance that absolutely deserves to be seen.
Steven Oxman is a local freelance writer.