By DANIEL POLLACK-PELZNER
Where is there space for Omari? Not at a wealthy, white private school, where the young Black man at the center of Dominique Morisseau’s heart-rending Pipeline is about to be expelled. (He shoved a teacher who needled him past the breaking point to provide his point of view on Black male violence in Native Son.) Not on YouTube, where a video of Omari’s outburst is going viral, turning him into another Bigger Thomas, Richard Wright’s savage menace. Not at the inner-city public school where his mother teaches Gwendolyn Brooks to teenagers who pass through metal detectors only to crack each other’s heads on the floor. Not at his father’s place, where strict hierarchy and child support checks keep Omari at bay. Not in his girlfriend’s dorm room, where he’s barred from finding a tender moment before packing his bags. “He doesn’t belong anywhere,” his mother tells the private school board members, pleading with them not to send Omari down the school-to-prison pipeline. “There is no block. No school. No land he can travel without being under suspicion and doubt. No emotion he can carry without being silenced or disciplined. He needed more space to be.”
Fortunately, Omari gets that space at Portland Playhouse, where Pipeline, in a searing co-production with Confrontation Theatre, runs through March 15. Not that the constrained set, cleverly designed by Ruben Arana-Downs, sets Omari free. Institutional doors block him from behind, showing video projections from student cell phones that recorded his violence, while the steeply raked audience seating bears down on him from the front; it’s surveillance or confinement, either way. When Omari tells his father how his teacher “keep pushing me and pushing me. And I stand up to walk out cuz I feel the room gettin’ smaller,” we feel that sense of being trapped. (A few patrons had to slip past the actors onstage to reach the bathroom mid-show.)
But Damaris Webb’s deeply felt staging lets us see Omari—given aching, vulnerable life by La’ Tevin Alexander—not only through the condemning footage and disciplinary systems likely to dehumanize him, but through the eyes of people who love him. That includes Jasmine, a fellow Black student at Fernbrook Academy (winningly played by Tyharra Cozier), who regards Omari, perhaps a touch self-servingly, “like an infant needing some kinda nurture.” That’s also Jasper Howard’s gentlemanly Dun, an outmatched school security guard, who gives Omari a back rub and a fist-bump when a panic attack sends his mother to the hospital. And most of all, that’s Omari’s mother, Nya (Ramona Lisa Alexander), terrified that her son will turn into one of the doomed Black youths in Brooks’s “We Real Cool,” whose final line, “We / Die soon,” echoes in her mind. Decked in proud African prints, her graceful composure breaking down at the thought of a world that might try to “expire” Omari for being “too young. Or too Black. Or too threatening…Or just too TOO,” Nya begs her son for instructions: “Tell me how to save you.” His response at the end of the play is both a teenage rejoinder and an artistic manifesto: “Let me have some space.”
It’s doubly moving to hear that line spoken by La’ Tevin Alexander, who came to Portland through Portland Playhouse’s Apprentice Program and then founded Confrontation Theatre to showcase works of the African diaspora. His understudy, Auntais Faulkner, a current Portland Playhouse apprentice, reminded the audience in a pre-show announcement that the theater is taking up historic space—originally cared for by Klamath and Multnomah tribes, the site formerly housed a Baptist church that served the King neighborhood’s largely Black community. Although the theater’s founders, Brian and Nikki Weaver, hewed at first to hipster-chic programming, they soon recognized that August Wilson’s Pittsburgh cycle about gentrification, racial injustice, and black oral traditions resonated more with their neighbors, who came to the Weavers’ aid when the city objected to zoning a theater in a church space. Community partnerships ensued, along with educational outreach around social justice, a theater festival for middle and high schoolers, an apprenticeship program, and more productions of playwrights who carry on Wilson’s legacy: Tarell Alvin McCraney, Idris Goodwin, Christina Anderson, Regina Taylor, and Dominique Morisseau.
A Detroit native and MacArthur Genius Grant Fellow, Morisseau wanted to do for her hometown what Wilson did for his—chronicle its music, its street poetry, its striving for dignity amid institutional forces that constrain its people’s dreams. Her Detroit Project trilogy dramatizes real estate battles after World War II, radical artists of the Civil Rights era, and auto workers set adrift by deindustrialization. (No wonder she was tapped to write the book for a jukebox musical about Detroit’s other great export, The Temptations; she was nominated for a Tony Award for Ain’t Too Proud, now playing on Broadway.) Morisseau is having a moment in Oregon: Skeleton Crew, the final Detroit play, ran at Artists Rep last season, and in April, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival will premiere her new commission, Confederates, about structural racism and gender bias during the American Civil War and in academia today.
Morisseau describes Pipeline as a love letter to her mother, a “fiercely committed educator” who taught public high school in Detroit for forty years. It feels apt that Nya, the character based on her, is played by Ramona Lisa Alexander, newly appointed as Portland Playhouse’s community programs and associate artistic director. The theater seems to have created an alternate pipeline to the one Nya fears, training artists from the Portland neighborhoods it serves and supporting their success at other companies. (The recent production of Jocelyn Bioh’s School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play at Portland Center Stage, for instance, featured four Portland Playhouse alumni in its all-Black, all-female eight-person cast.) The Playhouse is drawing as diverse an audience as I’ve encountered in Portland—tempted, perhaps, by free beer and popcorn to take into the show, along with blessedly gender-neutral bathrooms that redress the usual inequity in line length (or at least impose it equally on everyone).
In Pipeline, Alexander’s Nya addresses those of us in the audience directly—first as her curious, vocal Black and Latinx students, trying to make sense of a poem about alienated teenagers, and then as the privileged, mostly white board members at Omari’s private school, trying to decide his fate. As far as I could tell, the audience the night I saw the show included folks from both constituencies, and many more. Before the performance, Faulkner encouraged us to respond aloud and not to police each other’s reactions. (Morisseau wrote a widely-circulated account of a white patron who tried to silence her at a participatory show.) Maybe it’s too utopian to think that Portland Playhouse is creating a fully inclusive space. It’s not perfect, nor is any theater, certainly not in Oregon, with its legacies of racial exclusion, redlining, and gentrification. And nor is Pipeline a play that can solve the many forms of systemic racism on its own. (It’s a bit too constrained, perhaps, by the conventional forms of American realist theater, limited to mostly two-person talking scenes.) But Morisseau’s and Portland Playhouse’s pipelines are creating space for Omari to be seen, gradually, with love and understanding. “Hear me out,” he tells his mother. In an old church in the King neighborhood, you will.
Pipeline continues through March 15 at Portland Playhouse, 602 N.E. Prescott St., Portland. Ticket and schedule information here.
Daniel Pollack-Pelzner is the Ronni Lacroute Chair in Shakespeare Studies, Linfield College English Department. His most recent piece for The Atlantic, The new West Side Story isn’t interested in facts, takes a deep look inside the political, cultural, and artistic choices of Broadway’s new and provocative revival of the classic American musical.