The violence starts with Richard Wright's Native Son. A class at a private school is reading the 1940 novel—which was inspired by a real-life Chicago murder case—and the teacher asks a black student if he understands the protagonist's rage. Sensing the racism behind the teacher's question, the student tells him to back off, but the teacher persists, provoking the student to push him against the classroom's smart board.
That incident is never depicted in Pipeline, Dominique Morisseau's haunting drama of family, bigotry and accountability, but it is recollected so many times throughout the play—staged by Portland Playhouse and Confrontation Theatre—that you feel as if you witnessed it. You were there when Omari (La'Tevin Alexander) was verbally abused. You were there when he fought to keep his cool, and you were there when he no longer could.
Not every moment in Pipeline has the gravitational pull of that unstaged scene—Morisseau dilutes the story's impact by cramming in too many muddled subplots and verbal tangents. Yet through sheer charisma and commitment, the production's formidable cast succeeds in elevating a flawed but fascinating work of art.
Pipeline, directed by Damaris Webb, begins with the aftermath of the altercation. Omari's mother Nya (Ramona Lisa Alexander) is frantic, his estranged father Xavier (Reggie Lee Wilson) is furious, and his girlfriend Jasmine (Tyharra Cozier) just wants him to stay in one place. Omari has his own ideas—he wants to run away to Philadelphia—but even as he plans his escape, faceless authorities are deciding whether to expel him and press charges.
Omari's story illustrates the school-to-prison pipeline, which has resulted in a nauseating number of students being forced out of schools and into the criminal justice system. While juvenile crime rates have fallen since the 1990s, harsh school discipline policies continue to disproportionately affect black students, who are more than three times as likely to be suspended or expelled than whites, according to the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights as of 2015.
Pipeline portrays Omari as a victim of systemic racism, but it also takes the time to understand who he is as a human being. He may be the boy who confronted a teacher, but he is also sensitive and suave—the kind of guy who propositions his girlfriend by poetically telling her he is "seeking intimacy."
While La'Tevin Alexander captures Omari's complexities perfectly, Morisseau overcomplicates Pipeline. Pages of the script are wasted on Jasmine—who explains Omari's actions to Nya in the play's clunkiest scene of exposition—and Laurie (Alissa Jessup), who works with Nya at a public school and exists mainly to provide a teacher's perspective on situations like Omari's. Burdened by their duty to explain motivations and amplify themes, Jasmine and Laurie serve the narrative without ever emerging as fully developed characters.
If Jasmine and Laurie illuminate the story's superficiality, Omari's parents shatter it. Ramona Lisa Alexander and Wilson are so compelling as Nya and Xavier that after the play is over, the details of their performances are left engraved in your mind, like the way Xavier roughly turns away after Nya reaches out to caress his cheek.
That moment matters because it reminds us Pipeline is about injustice not only in America, but in a family. As both a husband and a father, Xavier has a distant and dictatorial persona, and the play holds his poor parenting partly responsible for Omari's decision to lash out. Morisseau wants us to care that Omari is a child of America—an inheritor of all its brutal baggage—and also a child of Nya and Xavier. Showing us he is all of those things, the play shows us he is more than a statistic.
SEE IT: Pipeline is at Portland Playhouse, 602 NE Prescott St., portlandplayhouse.org. 7:30 pm Wednesday-Saturday, 2 pm Sunday, through March 15. $5-$59.