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Theater Review: Pipeline

Face Off Theatre Company

Face Off Theatre’s most recent production, “Pipeline” was staged in a live performance at Dormouse Theatre in Kalamazoo last weekend. WMUK’s Gordon Bolar has this review.

The “pipeline” referenced in the title of Dominique Morisseau’s play is the system that disproportionately incarcerates young men of color for offenses in public or private schools.

Rather than examine the system itself, Morisseau focuses on the distress of two individuals: Nya, a single mother who teaches in an inner-city school, and her son, Omari, a student whose future is jeopardized by a fight he starts in class. The result is a riveting, stunning, and beautifully acted production, directed by Marissa Harrington, that yields insights into the values and choices made by an African American family trying to cope with an educational system that threatens to destroy them.

Shea-Lin Shobowale-Benson, presents a richly nuanced portrayal of Nya, who’s torn between many forces at play in her life. In her initial phone call reporting her son’s offense to her ex-husband Xavier, Shobowale-Benson paints a portrait of a woman who, despite a cheerful exterior, is exhausted by her workload, terrified for her son, and still not quite over the relationship with her former spouse.

In an early scene, Shobowale-Benson reveals a woman whose health issues and anxiety manifest themselves in the cold fear that her own son could end up as the persona of Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “We Real Cool”.

As she analyzes the poem before her class, her mental anguish is given stage presence as Omari, played by Delanti Hall, stands before us clad in a Nike swoosh hoodie, reciting the ominous final lines of Brooks’s poem, “We --- Die soon.”

Hall’s performance is remarkable for its range of emotion and the growth it encompasses. Omari is a conflicted and complicated young man. Hall’s portrayal is effective because he shows us his character’s complicated nature unravel by degrees, as the initial easy-going veneer falls away to reveal an inner life of rage and resentment.

Morisseau’s script seems to allow and encourage the actors to dig deeper emotionally with each scene. Hall is effective because he takes full advantage of these opportunities.

When we first see him, Omari’s main concern is on sweet-talking his girlfriend out of a jealous snit. But Omari’s focus quickly turns to his own safety as he plots his escape from an educational system he’s at odds with.

Omari ends his brief self-imposed exile with a surprise return to his mother’s apartment. One moment he plays the concerned son, lecturing Nya about her health, smoking, and drowning her sorrows in wine. The next moment, when probed by his mother for the cause of his outburst in school, he tries to explain his actions but can’t justify them in the presence of Nya.

After an overwrought Nya collapses in her classroom and is taken to the hospital, Omari is confronted in the waiting room by his until-now absent father, Xavier, portrayed with depth by Yasir Muhammad. Against the background beep of his mother’s heart monitor, we witness a tense stand-off between father and son, followed by a twenty second mutual stare down.

As Hall delivers a gut-wrenching, indictment of Xavier, the actor helps us to realize that Omari’s vehemence is also sowing the seeds of his recovery from the hatred that consumes him.

Omari’s admission that the outburst against his teacher was really meant for his father, opens the door for him to see the source of his wrong-doing and begin to make amends. It also allows Hall’s character to unfold fully in a final scene of reconciliation with his mother.

Strong supporting performances are delivered by Mikaela Johnson as Jasmine, Michael Davis Arnold as Dun, a school security guard, and Sandy Davis as Laurie, a teacher at Nya’s school.

Like Hall and Shobowale-Benson, each actor brings honesty to their performance. It’s an honesty born of an awareness that beneath the mask presented to others, there lies an inner turmoil revealed when characters are pushed to the breaking point. It’s an honesty that results in rendering characters without judgement, as human beings with flaws, but also with the ability to change, listen, and understand one another. In the final analysis, honesty conveys all you need to know about Dominque Morisseau’s script as well as Marissa Harrington’s carefully crafted and truly memorable production.