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Penumbra's 'Pipeline' asks tough questions about education, crime and punishment, and race

Victor Paul Virtucio

Victor Paul Virtucio

The title of Dominique Morisseau’s Pipeline refers to the American habit of bringing students of color, particularly young men, into quick contact with the criminal justice system, disproportionately delivering criminal raps for offenses their more privileged peers skate away with.

In the probing, tightly structured 2017 play, the future of a high-schooler named Omari (Kory Pullam) is in the hands of offstage administrators who are about to decide how to handle a classroom confrontation that got briefly physical. Omari’s already suspended, he’ll probably be expelled, and there might even be criminal charges.

The entire script takes place in that nerve-wracking window of time, and in Penumbra Theatre’s new production, director Lou Bellamy makes the most of every fleeting scene. The broad gestures hit home, but Bellamy and his strong cast also nail the subtle moments.

Erika LaVonn leads that cast as Nya, Omari’s mom. She and her ex-husband (Ansa Akyea) have sent their son to a private school where he and his girlfriend Jasmine (Kiara Jackson) are among the few black students. Nya herself teaches at a public school that predominantly serves students of color; there’s a subplot involving a white colleague (Melanie Wehrmacher) who takes an us-versus-them approach, and an overworked security guard (Darius Dotch) she calls upon at a critical moment.

With Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “We Real Cool” as a refrain, Morisseau cycles through conversations between pairs and among small groups of her characters, providing a prismatic view of the key relationships in Omari’s life. High-level statistics reveal the structural racism of America’s institutions, but Omari’s not a statistic: He’s a teenage boy, still figuring himself out.

The play is a high-wire act for LaVonn, whose character knows what the system can do to boys like hers and is terrified about it. In one moving scene, Nya tries to communicate her fears to Jasmine, who’s a savvy kid but lacks Nya’s life experience. The charismatic Jackson, who provides many of the play’s lighter moments, ultimately connects with LaVonn’s desperation.

Akyea, who’s often cast in sympathetic roles, here takes on a hard edge as an affluent professional who asserts his authority even as Omari finds it hard to respect a father who thinks his responsibility to the boy begins and ends with financial obligations. When the two finally have a moment alone, Akyea reveals a flash of the deep-rooted rage his son struggles with as well.

At the heart of the story, Pullam gives a multi-dimensional performance that ranges from the playful seductiveness he shows Jasmine to the unsparing honesty he reserves for his father. It’s Nya, we see, who meets her son at his most vulnerable. Shouldn’t she be the one making decisions about Omari’s future? Instead she has to take her case to the school board, in a scene where she aptly speaks straight to the audience.

Pipeline
Penumbra Theatre
270 N. Kent St., St. Paul
651-224-3180; through October 27