Privilege in America means not just getting opportunities to succeed but being forgiven for screwing up. Rich white kids with a penchant for partying and brawling (or worse) still end up becoming CEOs and Supreme Court justices, while many studies indicate that black kids who break school rules face far harsher punishment from early on.
That's one of the dimensions of the school-to-prison pipeline illustrated in Dominique Morisseau's richly faceted, if occasionally opaque, 2017 drama, aptly titled Pipeline, now in its local premiere at Victory Gardens Theater under the direction of Cheryl Lynn Bruce. Nya (Tyla Abercrumbie) is a black teacher in an embattled inner-city public high school where even the morning announcements sound like a prison warden's exhortations. Her son, Omari (Matthew Elam), is facing expulsion on a "third strike" from the private school where her successful ex-husband, Xavier (Mark Spates Smith), has wangled a spot for him.
Over 90 tense minutes, we're immersed in the fear and self-recriminations Nya experiences around her son's future and her own role in shaping him as a single mother. Morisseau also adroitly references famous black writers. Gwendolyn Brooks's poem "We Real Cool," which Nya teaches, underscores her fears for her son. In the play's best scene, we learn Omari assaulted a white teacher who singled him out to discuss Bigger Thomas's violence in Richard Wright's Native Son.
Morisseau's dialogue ripples with warmth and wit as well as despair about the state of public education in impoverished districts. Janet Ulrich Brooks as Laurie, Nya's white fellow teacher who has just returned to the classroom after having her face slashed by the family of a kid she flunked, spouts "tough love" rhetoric, saying, "A good old ass whipping can teach a lot." But she has expectations for her kids beyond good behavior, as demonstrated by her mockery of a substitute for showing her class season four of The Wire instead of giving them actual work.
Where Morisseau's play feels thinnest, ironically, is when it focuses on Omari and his Latinx classmate and girlfriend, Jasmine (Aurora Real De Asua). Their performances spark with kinetic energy, but they sound as if they're talking past each other, even when they're alone and away from the suffocating expectations of parents and teachers.
But when Abercrumbie and Elam face off, it's breathtaking and heartbreaking. Nya's attempts to bridge the divide between what she knows as a teacher and what she fears as a mother leave her son hanging in the void. We don't know what Omari's first two "strikes" at the school were, but his description of the fateful classroom assault (later mirrored by Laurie's harrowing account of a fight between two boys in her classroom) shows us how quickly the pipeline can suck someone like Omari in, when it's just one bad day too many, one microaggression too far. v