Inspired by Gwendolyn Brooks' poetry and Richard Wright's prose, Dominique Morisseau's Pipeline wants to be a teaching play where various aspects of the grooming system known as the "school to prison" pipeline are explored in broad strokes and emotionally fought conflicts. Characters exist at the edge of archetype, representing specific tensions in the narrative. Hattiloo's uncommonly wooden production is only sporadically successful in giving Morisseau's brief, panic-attack of a show the life, urgency, and inevitability it needs in order to cook.
Pipeline introduces us to Laurie, a grizzled soldier-educator from urban district trenches. She's a "white chick who has never had the luxury of winning over a class full of black and Latino kids,” and probably the kind of person who shows up in memes for calling the cops on black people outside Chick-fil-A for ... I don't know, reasons, okay? Laurie describes her teaching gig as "war," and kids are clearly the enemy here. Now that a student's slashed her face with a knife, she's got the scars to show for it. Or, she did have scars, before the reconstructive surgery. With a mannequin-still face and gutsy swagger, Memphis veteran actor Pamela Poletti just lets Laurie's opinions rip.
We also meet Nya (Nicole Bandele), an African-American English teacher who shows grace in the face of Laurie's white noise while navigating a whole other set of conflicts. She's committed to the neighborhood but sends her son Omari to a private school. When Omari faces expulsion after pushing his teacher in an incident he can explain, but can't dispute, Nya's ex-husband, a brusque and evidently successful man of business becomes involved. Things get prickly, complicated and class-and-gender conscious real quick.
To Omari dad-not-dad, he's just a signature on a check the secretary probably sends automatically. There's more going on in this one under-explored relationship than Pipeline's 75-minutes can hold. Many things are left unattended.
Hattiloo's Pipeline benefits from honest, committed performances, particularly from James Cook, as a straight-dealing security guard and younger cast members Desmond Cortez and Zaria Crawford. Overall, the stakes here are always too low and the threats too intangible. The action is unfocused and story's momentum is interrupted rather than aided by projected video.
Video projection can be a nifty tool, especially when it becomes interactive, environmental, or provides the audience with a different view of things than the one being presented by the actors. But these kids-gone-wild, ready-to-go viral videos depicting school tensions and violence were redundant, highlighting and reinforcing only the more sensational aspects of a complicated story. The clips are projected on theater walls between scenes and it's a nifty effect at first. Over time the clips become speed bumps, interrupting the momentum of a brief, bracing text with the potential to land hard.
Pipeline mixes kitchen-sink guts with cold formalism. It deploys Brooks' "We Real Cool," like Greek Tragedy uses prophesy. You feel the audience nod in collective recognition when the first words of the touchstone poem dropped. Hattiloo's production connects in these and other moments, but it never connects the dots.